Joshua Cheptegei Broke an Untouchable World Record

Ryan Fan Cheptegei (second to the right) at the 2016 Rio Olympics — From Tim Hipps, Public Domain

As a runner for the past 10 years and someone who has been following world-class running for all that time, there are certain world records that most people consider unbreakable. One of these records includes the 5,000 meters, with a previous world record time of 12:37.35, set by the greatest distance runner of all time, Kenenisa Bekele, in 2004. Since Bekele ran 12:37, no other runner would come within nine seconds of Bekele’s mark — until August 13, 2020.

Ugandan Joshua Cheptegei destroyed Bekele’s record to run 12:35 in the 5,000 meters. Not only that, but he ran that record in hot conditions of 79 degrees Fahrenheit, which is not ideal racing weather. The last two 5,000 meter world records were run at around 60 degrees.

Well, if one incredible physical feat has happened in my lifetime, Cheptegei’s record definitely takes the cake. For context, 12:35 in the 5,000 meters is 4:03 mile pace. To me, Cheptegei’s record is more impressive than Eliud Kipchoge’s marathon world record, or Eliud Kipchoge breaking 2 hours in the marathon on a non-eligible course.

I was surprised I only heard about it a day after it happened. Cheptegei is not getting the credit that he deserves for breaking a record that was last set in 2005. Sure, 12:35 in the 5k probably doesn’t go as viral as sub-2 in the marathon because it doesn’t sound as sexy and doesn’t have the same kind of ring to it. But Cheptegei ran an average of 60.43 seconds per 400 meters (quarter-mile).

It was not only what Cheptegei did, but how he did it that was incredible — throughout the whole race, Cheptegei was consistent. His splits were like a metronome, every lap outside the last two between 60 and 61 seconds. He didn’t even look tired the whole time until the end, as he sprinted to the finish, and finished to unanimous applause.

In Cheptegei’s own words:

“It took a lot of mind setting to keep being motivated this year because so many people are staying at home but you have to stay motivated. I pushed myself, I had the right staff with me, the right coach. I’m also usually based in Europe, but being based in Uganda with my family was actually great.”

I almost completely forgot that Cheptegei broke an untouchable world record during, well, a pandemic that upended the entire running world. I can’t remember the last time I even heard about a race, and in case everyone has forgotten, the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo got postponed until next year.

I can’t believe that Cheptegei was able to stay motivated. I can’t believe that he was still able to train well. I can’t believe that, despite all the once in a century challenges of the pandemic, Cheptegei was able to get into 12:35 5k shape and execute.

Maybe most other people wouldn’t understand how big a deal 12:35 in the 5k is, since it doesn’t breach any convenient milestone like 2 hours in the marathon — but 12:35 is something that maybe two humans in history could have run: Cheptegei and Bekele. 4:03 mile pace for 3.1 miles is absolutely insane.

To have most of your racing season delayed must have been a bummer, but Cheptegei was an accomplished runner who has catapulted himself to legend status. He’s a world champion in the 10,000 meters, a world record holder at the 5 km race on the roads, a world record holder at 15 km, and a cross country champion. 2019 was a great year for him, and he obviously carried the momentum to 2020, even with the coronavirus upending the whole running world.

To me, my running has been lagging significantly during the pandemic. I simply just find it difficult to run and find meaning in doing so without people to run with and races to train for. The fact that Cheptegei was able to do it just shocks me and baffles my mind.

Well, if the fact that someone is able to break a 16-year-old world record that I used to regard as untouchable doesn’t motivate me, I have no idea what will. I have no excuses to not be running in the 2020 Boston Marathon. Previously, I said that I refused to run a virtual marathon based on my more old school running philosophy. Now, I’m determined to run my best race possible, even with a pandemic, because despite the chaos going on in the world, I can’t put such an important part of my life and something I worked so hard to qualify for go to waste.

Now, Joshua Cheptegei has run 12:35. I have no excuses now not to run a race so many runners dream of running, and do the best I possibly can, because Cheptegei has stretched my perception and reality of what is possible, even during a pandemic.

Originally published on August 15, 2020 on Runner's Life.

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Believer, Baltimore City special ed teacher, and 2:40 marathon runner. Diehard fan of "The Wire," God's gift to the Earth. Support me:

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