Sports

Kipruto’s heroics in Brussels rekindles memories of local runners who conquered the world barefoot

Joel Omotto and IAAF

There have been numerous examples of athletes losing shoes on track and road but it is hard to recall tougher circumstances than those in which Kenya’s world and Olympic 3,000m steeplechase champion Conseslus Kipruto suddenly found himself a minute-and-a-half into his race as his left shoe was sent flying by an opponent’s foot.

With more than three quarters of the race ahead of him in this season’s IAAF Diamond League finals in Brussels on Thursday, he had to fight down any natural tendency to panic and re-cast his race strategy against a field that included the eager 22-year-old Moroccan, Soufiane El Bakkali, whom he had beaten to world gold in London the previous summer.

The Moroccan must have thought he had done enough as he drove for home around the final bend with the field in his wake. But Kipruto wouldn’t give in.

All the way down the finishing straight, the smaller man with the white top and the bare foot refused to let El Bakkali move clear, and after clearing the final hurdle a metre or so behind the leader, he found the drive, somehow, to move past and win. It was the performance of a champion.

El Bakkali dropped, exhausted to the floor. When he was finally helped up by two other runners, he smacked his fist into his palm before leaving the arena.

“I have big pain,” Kipruto said after finishing a stride ahead in 8:10.15 to El Bakkali’s 8:11.19. “I am injured because I lost my left shoe. That was a mess. But it motivated me to fight as hard as I could, so the race went well,” he added.

Provided the injury Kipruto sustained isn’t too serious, the two men are due to race against each other at next week’s IAAF Continental Cup, but that time they will be on the same team, representing Africa.

Rarely has any athlete had to run so far on the track with such a handicap, but Kipruto’s compatriot Eliud Kipchoge, the Olympic marathon champion, had to put up with faulty, rather than absent, shoes for a far longer period when his insoles started flapping out halfway through the 2015 Berlin Marathon. Like Kipruto, he still found a way to win.

Chespol and Kipchoge

At last year’s IAAF Diamond League meeting in Eugene, another Kenyan runner, 18 -year-old Celliphine Chespol, produced an extraordinary piece of running as, despite losing one of her shoes on the penultimate water jump, she pressed on to finish second in 8:58.78, a world U20 record which made her the second fastest runner of all time.

The most acrimonious case of footwear malfunction occurred on the final lap of the men’s 10,000m at the 1993 IAAF World Championships in Stuttgart, when leader Moses Tanui had his heels clipped by the then up-and-coming Ethiopian Haile Gebrselassie.

Tanui reacted, waved his arms, and then flung off his partially dislodged left shoe and made an immediate effort to outsprint Gebrselassie, but the latter passed him to win the first of what would be four world 10,000m titles.

“I could not grab the last lap the way I wanted. If I had my shoes, he would not beat me,” Tanui said in a TV interview while carrying a Kenyan flag and still wearing one shoe.

Those acts of bravery brings to mind a host of other Kenyan athletes who run barefoot to great success in the past.

Maiyoro’s heroics

Born in 1931 at Kiogoro in the current Kisii County, Nyandika Maiyoro is one of pioneers of Kenyan athletics despite little recognition at the global arena and remains one of the few athletes to ever make international mark by running barefoot and eventually clinching gold.

At Indian Ocean games in Madagascar (1953), Maiyoro joined the 3,000 metres race late and eventually beat all other athletes while running without shoes and in 1954, he finished fourth in the Commonwealth Games and would get sixth position in the 1960 Olympics.

“My intention was to run and make my country proud. Those days we never used to know much about money,” he said in a past interview.

Then came the great Teglah Loroupe. One of the finest distance runners in the world, Loroupe won three Rotterdam, two New York, Lausanne and London marathon titles.

While a junior athlete, she ran barefoot before then alternating between running in shoes and running barefoot. At the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, she ran both the Marathon and the 10,000m without track spikes, placing 13th and fifth place respectively (due to battling food poisoning).

Keeping faith barefoot

Faith Kipyegon Chepng’etich is now a revered middle distance athlete in the world having won Olympics (Rio 2016) and World (London 2017) titles in just one year in the 1,500m.

But before joining the senior ranks, Chepng’etich, 24, burst onto the scene as a naive youngster when she surprised all by winning gold in the junior 6km race at the 2011 World Cross-Country Championships in Punta Umbria, Spain.

“I have always run without shoes. I got my first pair of running shoes last year (2010). But they did not fit me and would slow me down because they were big. I tried to train in them but there was no difference,” the then Standard Eight pupil at the Keringet Township Primary School in Nakuru said.

“I run freely and fast without shoes. The spikes underneath make me uncomfortable and I lose balance,” she added to the astonishment of the many fans and journalists who had stormed Jomo Kenyatta International Airport to welcome the victorious Team Kenya at the time.

It is safe to say she has now found her balance as besides the Olympic and World titles, she also added the World Junior (2011), World Youth (2012), World Relays (2014) and Commonwealth Games (2014) gold medals, while running in shoes. 

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