Tearful Tributes For Kenyan Marathon Prodigy Kiptum

On Thursday, hundreds of mourners paid an emotional tribute to Kenya’s world marathon record-holder, Kelvin Kiptum, ahead of his funeral in the country’s athletics heartland.

Kiptum, 24, was murdered in a car accident near the Rift Valley town of Eldoret on February 11, sending Kenya and the athletics world into shock.

On the eve of Kiptum’s funeral, his coffin, encircled with flowers, was driven through Eldoret in a hearse, with some people observing silently and others singing hymns.

His mother, Mary Kangongo, and widow, Asenath Rotich, cried uncontrollably at the morgue as the wooden casket was loaded into the black hearse.

Kiptum, a father of two, will be laid to rest at Naiberi, outside Eldoret, where the government is constructing a new home for the national hero’s family.

People sign a book of condolences next to a photo of Kelvin Kiptum during the beginning of the funeral proceedings to marathon runner Kelvin Kiptum in Iten, on February 22, 2024. (Photo by LUIS TATO / AFP)

“It is difficult to accept this happened,” said Athletics Kenya executive committee member Barnaba Korir.

“It is a big void in Kenyan athletics.”

Kiptum burst onto the marathon scene in 2022 and shattered the world record in Chicago in October last year.

He ran the distance in two hours and 35 seconds, slicing 34 seconds off the previous fastest time, set by his Kenyan rival, the marathon legend Eliud Kipchoge.

‘His death hit everyone hard’

On Thursday, the funeral procession snaked its way along roads lined with fans and athletes as it headed towards Iten, the legendary high-altitude training region, where mourners viewed Kiptum’s body in a half-open casket.

“My heart is still so heavy. The whole family is in a critical, sad moment,” his uncle Philip Kiplagat told AFP.

He described Kiptum as a “great man — someone you rely on”.

Local sports official Purity Koima said Kiptum was loved by everyone.

“We lost so many athletes here in Iten but Kiptum’s death has hit everyone hard,” she said.

People gather to sign a book of condolences next to a banner with a photo of Kelvin Kiptum during his funeral proceedings in Iten, on February 22, 2024. (Photo by LUIS TATO / AFP)

Shoe-shiner Paul Ouma, who followed the procession on foot for more than two kilometres (over one mile), said Kiptum’s death was “very painful”.

“We were expecting a lot from him,” Ouma told AFP.

In Iten, dozens of mourners signed a book of condolence.

World Athletics head Sebastian Coe, who arrived in Eldoret on Thursday, and Kenyan President William Ruto are expected to be among the attendees at Friday’s funeral.

‘You inspired us all’

According to police, Kiptum was driving near Eldoret at around 11:00 p.m. (2000 GMT) on February 11 when his car drifted off the road into a ditch and collided with a tree.

His Rwandan coach, Gervais Hakizimana, 36, also killed, and another passenger, a woman, was hurt.

Johansen Oduor, Kenya’s leading government pathologist, said on Wednesday that an autopsy revealed Kiptum had sustained serious brain injuries.

Toxicology testing were still underway, he noted.

Hakizimana, who had been training Kiptum since 2019, was laid to rest in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital on Wednesday.

The young athlete had only run three marathons, yet he had three of the fastest seven times in the event’s history.

The coffin of late Kenyan marathon runner Kelvin Kiptum is seen next to a commemorative picture during his funeral proceedings in the village of Chepkorio, on February 22, 2024. (Photo by LUIS TATO / AFP)

After flying through the course in Chicago, the then 23-year-old waved and blew kisses at spectators before crossing the finish line.

“A world record was not in my mind today,” he said afterwards.

“I knew one day, one time, I’d be a world-record holder.”

He was favourite to take gold at this year’s Paris Olympics, where he was expected to go head-to-head with Kipchoge for the first time.

Known for maintaining a gruelling training schedule that sometimes topped 300 kilometres (190 miles) a week, Kiptum had only recently announced he was hoping to smash the mythic two-hour mark in Rotterdam in April.

“Kelvin, you achieved greatness and inspired us all,” Coe said in a tribute on X last week.

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