By BERNARD ROTICH
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On January 31 this year, Athletics Kenya named the men’s and women’s marathon team for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. There were no surprises from the list presented by AK chief Jackson Tuwei and Sports Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed at Riadha House that chilly morning.
The men’s Olympics marathon defending champion Eliud Kipchoge, considered to be the greatest marathoner of all time, will lead Kenya’s quest for gold in Sapporo alongside World Championships Marathon bronze medallist Amos Kipruto and Boston and Chicago Marathon champion Lawrence Cherono.
Kenya’s marathon team for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Front row women’s team (from left): Brigid Kosgei, Vivian Cheruiyot, Valary Aiyabei, Ruth Chepng’etich and Sally Chepyego. Back row men’s team: Titus Ekiru, Bedan Karoki, Lawrence Cherono and Amos Kipruto pose for a photo at Riadha House, Nairobi on January 31, 2020. PHOTO | CHRIS OMOLLO | NATION MEDIA GROUP
Kipchoge is the defending champion after his triumph in Rio de Janeiro four years ago.
Bedan Karoki, who finished second in the Tokyo Marathon and fourth in Chicago last year, is among the reserves alongside Honolulu Marathon and African Games Half Marathon winner Titus Ekiru.
World marathon record holder Brigid Kosgei, who shattered Paula Radcliffe’s 16-year record in Chicago last year, 2018 London Marathon champion Vivian Cheruiyot and World Championships gold medallist Ruth Chepng’etich are the three runners Kenyans will be hoping they retain the gold won by Jemima Sumgong in 2016. Sumgong has since been banned for using banned substances.
Kenya has over the years earned its place in the annals of long distance running and for one to make the Olympics marathon team for the East African powerhouse is no mean feat and Lawrence Cherono knows that.
“I’m excited to be representing my country for the first time. The fact that it is at the Olympics makes it even better for me. I have dreamt of donning the colours of our flag for a long time,” the 31-year-old tells me as we settle for this interview at the Rosa Associati camp in Kaptagat, Elgeyo Marakwet County.
But how did the late bloomer get here? Written off by everyone around him, including his brother and parents, Cherono chose to let fate take him to his destiny after several attempts and failures ensured he did not have it easy at first.
“He was an obedient child. After high school he started training with his elder brother Benson but he didn’t seem to be cut for long distance training terrain and he had to drop out and try his hand in the business world,” his father, Mariko Kipsang, narrates. “I honestly didn’t know he would ever be where he is today in the athletics world.”
Cherono’s undying urge to succeed has got something to do with his upbringing. Born on August 7, 1988 in Kuikui village in Barwesa, Baringo County, the soft-spoken marathoner had to run for about 10 km every day in pursuit of basic education at Kuikui Primary School.
“We would run throughout because lunch time wasn’t enough for us. I used to get back to school late and we were punished by being asked to run 12 laps around the field,” said Cherono.
Baringo’s Athletics Kenya chairman Barnabas Kitilit was the principal at Poror High School in Eldama Ravine when Cherono joined the institution and encouraged the diminutive boy to keep training even though Cherono admits he wasn’t the brightest prospect in the sport.
“When I joined high school, we used to go for preps by 5am and at exactly 5.50am, we would proceed for the morning run and this shaped my life in the 3,000m race though I didn’t make it past the provincial competitions,” he said.
Cherono’s path was about to get darker.
His elder brother Benson, who is now his coach, tells us of the struggles Cherono went through after high school; little wonder he has an untiring way of finishing his races.
“We used to train together but he would remain behind especially during our long runs and this forced me to ask him to start a business since running was not in his blood,” Benson recalls.
“He agreed to drop out and run a posho mill for the family. But he started training again secretly. I didn’t know about it until someone told me my brother was really doing well in training.”
“I’m happy for him and I must say that he has been a disciplined athlete and that is why he is doing well. He has a bright future.”
Cherono, who met his wife Winny in 2017, will be heading back to Boston Marathon in April as he seeks to retain his title after winning last year’s race in 2:07:57 — two seconds ahead of Ethiopia’s Lelisa Desisa. The sprint finish victory, which he mirrored in his win in Chicago on October 13 with a time of 2:05:45 with all the top three competitors finishing within three seconds of each other, left Cherono as one of the most sought-after marathoners in the world. Cherono out-kicked Debela Dejene and Asefa Mengstu in the last 400 metres of the race.
Chicago Marathon champion Lawrence Cherono is given Kalenjin traditional milk ‘Mursik’ by his mother Mary Cherono as his wife, Winnie, (second left) and father Mark Cherono look on during his homecoming ceremony upon arrival at Eldoret International Airport on October 16, 2019. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA |
Cherono is almost lost for words as we revisit his early training days.
“Those whom I used to train with would leave me after five kilometres and the trend continued until my brother asked me to try doing something else. It was tough,” he says.
Now in Eldoret town, the famed Home of Champions, where the posho mill business was based, Cherono had a chat with Luka Rotich (his cousin) and decided to train discretely as he hoped for a better day on the roads.
“I thought of the four years I had wasted and I decided to train early in the morning with my cousin and I would open the posho mill afterwards. I used to ask someone to run it on my behalf as I went for the evening run,” said Cherono.
In 2015, Cherono’s would-be first event outside the country did not materialise.
“I had some savings of Sh30,000 and used the money to get an Australian visa but I didn’t manage to travel after missing the document. I went on with my training and I was invited to compete in the Algiers Marathon.” He emerged second despite the hot conditions in the Algerian capital.
His performance didn’t go unnoticed. He was advised to enroll at the Rosa Associati Athletics Camp where he dived into athletics fully.
Lawrence Cherono, at Rosa Associati, High Performance Athletics Training Camp in Kaptagat, Elgeyo-Marakwet County on October 15, 2018. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA |
The same year he managed to win Seville Marathon in Spain, clocking 2:09:39 before he finished second in Hong Kong Marathon in 2:12:14.
In 2016, Cherono won Prague Marathon in 2:07:24 before closing the season with a win in Honolulu Marathon in 2:09:39.
He was second in Rotterdam Marathon in 2017 after timing 2:06:21 before winning in the Amsterdam Marathon where he clocked 2:05:09. He defended Honolulu Marathon with a course record of 2:08:27.
Kenya’s Lawrence Cherono poses on the podium after winning the Amsterdam Marathon on October 15, 2017. PHOTO | BAS CZERWINSKI |
In 2018, he had his shot at the World Marathon Majors in London, but a hamstring injury slowed him down in the second part of the race and he eventually finished seventh in 2:09:25. Kipchoge won the race.
Cherono later that year retained his Amsterdam Marathon title in a course record of 2:04:06.
His admiration for Kipchoge almost makes him as thoughtful: “One has to believe in what he does and focus on it to achieve his best.”
“Good training and being focused is the only way to get good results. Good opportunities will always come and upcoming athletes should just be patient.”
And his training schedule?
“I report to the camp on Sunday evening and the training programme runs from Monday to Saturday. Self-discipline is what has kept me going and I’m not yet done, it’s just the start of my career,” Cherono says as he shows us his routine that has him covering over 150km every week.
“My wife has been of great help because she has been able to take care of the chores back at home while I’m in the camp training,” Cherono, the sixth child in a family of seven children, says.
With the Olympics men’s marathon scheduled for August 8, a day after his birthday, one must think that Cherono is already keeping his fingers crossed for a dream debut and a perfect 32nd birthday gift. It will also be just 32 days after his daughter, Renata Chebet’s first birthday. But he has his Boston Marathon title defence in April to work on first.
“I’m happy with his progress because he has shown that anything is possible. I’m praying to God that he gets the strength to continue winning the various races he will be competing in,” Mzee Kipsang says.
God, for those who believe in the Holy scriptures, answers prayers at His own time. Will it be first time lucky for Cherono at the Olympics? Will he be the one to come home with the gold? Only time will tell.