Joshua Cheptegei Is Pursuing Greatness

Will We See the Newest World Record on Strava? A Q&A With Joshua Cheptegei

We all saw Cheptegei stop his watch at the finish of his world-record 5,000 meters. Time to give him some kudos?

Uganda’s Joshua Cheptegei broke his fourth world record at the age of 23.

In a year turned upside-down by the coronavirus pandemic, the young distance runner proved that he is still on his way to be among the greats in the sport. On August 14, Cheptegei ran a 12:35.36 in the 5,000 meters—a 4:03 per mile average—to beat Kenenisa Bekele’s 2004 world record by two seconds. And in February, he broke the 5K road record when he dropped a 12:51—a full 27 seconds faster than the previous mark—at the Monaco Run 5K.

Runner’s World caught up with Cheptegei, talking about his record run, what the future looks like for the young star, and, yes, why he stopped his watch after crossing the finish line. Here’s what he had to say.

Runner’s WorldThis has been an odd year with the pandemic shifting the Olympic year and almost taking away an entire racing schedule. Has your training shifted as at all because of this?

Joshua Cheptegei: The pandemic changed the face of running, and it has affected me in a very different way. They say, in a storm, something good still can come. Pain may persist in the night but joy comes in the morning. So actually, I never allowed myself to say this was a gone season.

A lot of things never change in my life, my training, at home, so I just listened to my coaches. He was saying that we really have to keep it going. You never know how things are going to go. It’s just good to keep on training because, for me, I’m really passionate about running, and I can still run even if there are no events anywhere.

So, I changed my mindset. When I started running, I kept on training for the whole year without racing in Europe. This was just some kind of test we had to accept and because of this passion we are doing, running, we can do it even without racing and through training and enjoy the moment.

With travel still closed in parts of the world, did you have any challenges getting to Monaco?

Cheptegei: We were worried about how to get to Monaco. [My coach, my management, and I] knew I was in great shape and great form, and the record was not impossible. But the next step was how to get to Monaco.

When I spoke with the government, they were accepting of the idea. They offered a charter plane to take us from Entebbe to Nairobi where we can connect for international flights. Bearing in mind, because the Kampala airport is still closed, the borders are still closed, so that was the biggest battle. But nevertheless, the government of Uganda, the first lady, and president, did amazing to help us get to Monaco.

Once you get to the line in Monaco and the race starts, you take off with the pacers. When they broke off, you appeared to go even faster. Was that the plan all along?

Cheptegei: At the beginning of the pandemic, when things were cancelled, when the plans came for the possibility of having a Monaco 5K world record attempt, the plans for me came together with Global Sports Communication, my coaches, and the manager. The plan was to do a world record without being paced. That was the idea. When I ran Monaco in the 5K on the road in the middle of February, I really did amazing running alone running 1K to 5K without the pacer.

I was prepared mentally to run the world record even without being paced. That was really my plan.

With one lap to go, you had a smile on your face. What was going through your mind in that moment?

Cheptegei: At that point, I was thinking that I’m at the world record pace, so with one lap to go, it was a matter of me running a 61 or 60, so that’s when I know it was going to be possible for me. I just felt good in that moment.

You didn’t look tired when you finished. Were you?

Cheptegei: I was not very tired. I was really prepared for this world record and six to seven months of actual training was really something longer than I had ever done before. I did close to 10 to 12 special sessions with my coach and that was able to help bring me to the world record pace. I realise that also, if the conditions were good, i’d also do something special more than that.

You also stopped your watch at the finish. Are you planning to post that on Strava?

Cheptegei: Normally, distance runners are used to running with a watch. We like to run with the watches. Specifically in Monaco, I was actually just excited. I really wanted to save this run because I wanted to download it and upload it in my phone. Maybe perhaps do a study of my heart rate with the coach and do a lot of things like that.

I haven’t yet uploaded it anywhere, but perhaps could put it on Strava. If my coach is saying and Global Sports Communication is saying we can upload it then, yeah, it totally could happen.

Can you tell me how you’ve felt since and what the reaction was like back home in Uganda?

Cheptegei: It wasn’t easy with the airport in Uganda closed. I had to go from Niece to Istanbul, Istanbul to Nairobi, and from there we used the road. It was really long, close to 12 hours on the road. It was really long, like 10 to 12 hours on the road.

My joy was I was able to get home. I was able to come home with the world record. The first lady and the president and several people were sending me congratulation messages and everyone was really happy. Everyone was talking about Cheptegei’s world record.

At 23, you already have a long list of accolades, but where does this record sit amongst those accomplishments for you?

Cheptegei: There’s been a lot of things of course, the different people and media and writers, considering the greatest distance runners. Those ones who are endeavored to succeed on the track, those ones who are actually have the world records on the track.

I did the 10K world record, I did the 5K world record on the road, and also the 10K road world record, and still, I really wasn’t considered to be among the great athletes in the world. My dream growing up was to be in the class of the greatest distance runners of all time and the only way to do that was not only to win the world championship medals, the Olympic gold medals, and the cross country and half marathon championships, but it was to break one of the world records.

With the rest of the year still up in the air, do you have any races you are particularly hoping for heading into an Olympic year?

Cheptegei: I can tell you, I’m gonna start training easy and then focus on the world half marathon championships, if they are to take place, in Poland. That’s the plan. Maybe a 10K on the streets. Maybe a track event. We’ll see.

Because of what you’ve accomplished over the last year, do you think you’re the person to beat in middle distance and long distance on the track?

Cheptegei: I know I’m at my best, and I know some people have their best at a different period of time, so I cannot [make any excuses for] myself. If am beat in Tokyo, I cannot really have an excuse to say that I’m not really in top shape. … [The plan is to] run in Tokyo at the right moment, be in the right shape, and, of course, expect to win the titles.

Do you want to continue doubling up with the 5,000 and 10,000 moving forward?

Cheptegei: I’m seeing my body respond positively in training, really getting stronger in training and racing, so absolutely, I’m looking forward to doing a double. … I really want to continue running on the track for the next four to five years from now, maybe until the next Olympics [in 2024]. Then I take it from there and maybe perhaps move to the marathon.

What other goals do you have in mind?

Cheptegei: Naturally with a lot of talent, I see a lot of ambitions for me for the future. Mine is just to make history and live up to the dream of becoming the greatest distance athlete of all time. That is absolutely what I’m heading for.

I have to work hard, I have to believe in myself, I have to believe in the team around me, I have to believe in the coaches around me, I have to believe in the teammates, and I have to believe in the management because this is a collective effort.

What performances will make you the greatest runner of all time?

Cheptegei: I think I just need a couple of Olympic gold medals, a few world championship medals, and a couple of records, and if I can do that, it would put me among the greatest races like the likes of Kenenisa [Bekele], the likes of Haile [Gebrselassie], and the likes of Eliud [Kipchoge].

You definitely have the self-confidence to do that.

Cheptegei: Yeah, I’m really confident because I believe that I have the talent. The only thing is to remain focused, remain humble, and hope for your dreams. That’s what I believe in. It’s only me who can make my star shine. It’s all in my hands.

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