(24-Feb) -- A year ago on Saturday, 2012 Olympic 10,000m silver medalist Sally Kipyego qualified for her first United States Olympic team, taking third at the USA Olympic Team Trials Marathon in Atlanta. Kipyego, who became an American citizen in 2017 after spending 12 years in the United States first attending Texas Tech University and then running professionally, has not raced in 12 months. She has spent her pandemic year in her native Kenya with her husband, Kevin Chelimo, and their three year-old daughter, Emma, where they enjoyed extensive family support.
PHOTO: Sally Kipyego in Boston in April, 2019, before the Boston Marathon (photo by Jane Monti for Race Results Weekly)
"Mostly the last year has been kind of laid back for me," Kipyego told reporters on a video conference today arranged by USA Track & Field. "After the Games were postponed, coach and I basically decided that it was going to be an easy year."
Kipyego's Nike Oregon Track Club Elite coach, former British steeplechaser Mark Rowland, has Kipyego on a moderate program of running 70 to 80 miles (113 to 129 km) per week. Kipyego said that she has been usually running just once per day, slowly building up her base fitness for the women's Olympic marathon scheduled for Saturday, August 7, in Sapporo.
"Nothing intense," the 35 year-old said of her training. "Basically, we just wanted to make sure that were going to get an off-year and was rested a little bit, just to be fresher this coming season."
Although it's difficult to plan with the trajectory of the pandemic constantly shifting, Kipyego said she was scheduled to run a 15-kilometer road race in March, presumably the USA 15-K Championships hosted by the Gate River Run in Jacksonville, Fla., on Saturday, March 20, then a 10,000m track race in April. A formidable track runner with a 10,000m personal best of 30:26.37, Kipyego is hoping to get a qualifying mark for the 2022 World Athletics Championships which will be held in Eugene at the new Hayward Field, the home base of her track club.
"I might be a bit rusty, obviously, because I haven't raced in a year," she admitted.
Kipyego first attempted the marathon in New York in 2015 after an excellent summer track season where she finished fifth at the World Athletics Championships 10,000m in Beijing. But that race didn't go well. She hit the wall running down Manhattan's Fifth Avenue, and in the 23rd mile (about 37 km) she was forced to drop out. She walked the 24th mile in 18 minutes and 19 seconds, according to the race's official tracking software, before being picked up by the sweep van. She returned to New York a year later, this time finishing the race and placing second in 2:28:01. She paced herself carefully in that event, running the first half in 1:13:54 and the second in 1:14:07.
"For me, I'm very happy," Kipyego told Race Results Weekly in 2016. "I'm very happy with the results today. For those that were here last year or know what happened last year, this was kind of a redemption year for me, or marathon, for me. I just decided to run behind today and run within myself and make sure I didn't get carried away with the leaders. Stayed within my pace, and that paid off today."
Since then, Kipyego's marathon record has been mixed. She wouldn't start another marathon until April, 2019, when she ran Boston, but was forced to drop out with a calf injury. She went to Berlin the following September and ran a personal best 2:25:10, good for seventh place. On a five-month turnaround, she took third in the Trials, running the first half in a reasonable 1:14:38 and coming back in the second half slightly faster 1:14:14 to record a 2:28:52 finish time.
For Sapporo, Kipyego isn't sure how fast she'll need to run, but feels she needs to be in shape to run a world class time in order to have a chance at a medal.
"That is really the objective for this season for me, to be able to medal," Kipyego told reporters. "I know that is possible. We're talking about championships. When it comes to championships it's not the same as major marathons, for example. You can still be competitive in a championships because you're not running 2:14 (Brigid Kosgei's world record time) or 2:12 marathon. If the race is being run at 2:20, must of us can run (at that pace). So, I believe if I can get myself in 2:20 or sub-2:20 shape for Tokyo. I think if I am in that kind of shape then my chances are pretty good at medaling."
Kipyego said she felt safe in Kenya during the pandemic, that Kenyan authorities had done a good job at controlling infections through mask mandates, curfews and other measures. Schools were closed last year, she said, and Emma was too young to attend school then anyway.
"The rules have been really strict," she said.
Going into the Olympics, Kipyego said that it will be a special feeling for her to represent the United States for the first time. She could have retained her Kenyan allegiance, but she felt a special pull to represent the USA, a country which has helped her so much in her development as an athlete.
"It is a choice," Kipyego said. She added: "I chose to actually wear the U.S. jersey. So, for me it's an honor. I have said this so many times. It is a way to be grateful for the things that America has done for me and my family. It's really that simple because coming to America and being an American has changed my life and my family's life in so many ways."
As she imagined herself on the starting line in Sapporo, Kipyego swelled with pride.
"I know I will have some strong emotions, that's for sure," she said. "There's no question about that. I hope to represent well and I hope to do well."