Rhonex Kipruto has ran the fastest 10km on American soil and wowed his coaches and competitors. So what makes him stand out in a country ripe with running talent?
By Adharanand Finn
Identifying the next big running star in Kenya, from the country’s incredible wealth of raw, hungry talent, is no easy thing. But for coach Ian Kiprono, a then 15-year-old Rhonex Kipruto stood out even as a scrawny, barefoot kid in a cross-country race a few years ago.
“He didn’t win that day,” Kiprono tells me as he mashes avocado into his uji—a sweet, fermented porridge made from millet and honey. He’s sitting on a bench outside a simple mud building with a tin roof. This is the famous St. Patrick’s training camp in Iten, in Kenya’s Rift Valley region. Over the years this place has honed the talents for many of the country’s biggest stars, most notably the 800-meter world record holder and double Olympic champion David Rudisha.
Kipruto finished third the day his future coach first spotted him. “But he was a fighter,” Kiprono says. Two of the camp’s established athletes were in the race, both with several years of training and a sponsorship from Adidas. But the teen, who never had any formal training, wouldn’t let them go.
It was just the beginning for Rhonex Kiptuto. Now, only 19 years of age, he’s been leaving his mark on the roads and track, and on the Fourth of July ran the world’s biggest 10K, the Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta, and broke the 23-year-old course record. He ran 27:01 to better the mark set in 1996 by fellow Kenyan Joseph Kimani. As a result, Kipruto ran the fastest time ever recorded on U.S. soil.
Kipruto’s upward trajectory started after that race when he was 15. Following that, he was invited to join the St. Patrick’s camp. Even when he started training with the group, Kiprono says it was hard to convince him to run in shoes. “He preferred to do speedwork barefoot. The spikes were too narrow for his feet.”
The moment 19-year-old Rhonex Kipruto of Kenya crossed the finish line, he broke @ajcprr men's elite race record! But that's not all…— WSB-TV (@wsbtv) July 4, 2019
His unofficial time of 27:01 is now the fastest EVER on American soil! Way to go! https://t.co/hoHuJd4jW2 #AJCPRR50 pic.twitter.com/Flk77kGlU9
As we sit talking in the mid-morning sun, Kipruto comes out of the building to lie on a yoga mat in the grass beside us. He pulls out his phone, but after a few quick scrolls puts it away again and lies his head down on the ground and closes his eyes. After training and then eating and washing, his job now is to rest before working out again later in the afternoon. It’s a simple routine, but one that has led to some eye-opening results in his young career.
He first caught the world’s attention in 2018 when, a few months after winning the African junior cross-country championships, Kipruto turned up in New York City at 18 years old and ran the fastest 10K ever (at the time) on a record-eligible course on U.S. soil, winning the 2018 UAE Healthy Kidney 10K in Central Park in 27:08. A few months later he ran the second fastest 10K on the roads ever—just two seconds off the world record—to win the 2018 Prague 10K in 26:46.
He’s no less impressive on the track, finishing a full 22 seconds ahead of his nearest rival to win the World Junior 10,000-meter title in 2018. And a few weeks before I met him at his camp in Iten, he was out destroying a world-class field in the Stockholm Diamond League, winning the 10,000 meters in wind and rain in a time of 26:50.
Watching the Stockholm race back on YouTube, Kipruto seems to win with ease, taking hold of the lead around 5,000 meters into the race. As he put distance on his competitors down the stretch, he ran the last two laps with a beaming smile across his face and won by over half the home straight.
“I enjoy pushing,” he says. “If my body will respond, let’s go!” he says, sweeping the air with his hand. He says his favorite tactic is to wait until halfway, and then push.
I ask him what his main goal is, in the long term. I’m expecting to hear talk of the Olympics in Tokyo, but instead he says: “To be disciplined. Leave me so I can be like that. I want to live like Eliud.” He’s talking about Eliud Kipchoge, the marathon world record holder who continues to live a sparse, simple lifestyle in a training camp in Kenya just like this one, despite all his wealth and success.
Kipruto’s discipline is certainly impressive. He recently won a car at a race in Kenya but has given it away as he says he doesn’t need it. He just runs, eats, and sleeps. “I don’t need to go anywhere,” he says.
Coach Kiprono nods along. “I’ve seen it over many years,” he says, “that a vehicle is the most distracting thing for an athlete. It can be hard to handle. Suddenly, you can be off.”
The head coach in the St. Patrick’s camp is a 70-year-old Irish Patrician missionary named Brother Colm O’Connell, known throughout the local running community as the Godfather of Kenyan running. He says when Kiprono, his assistant, first invited Kipruto to train in the camp, it wasn’t the teenager’s ability that made him stand out, but his attitude. “We noticed his resilience,” O’Connell tells me. “He kept quietly plugging away.”
He says attitude is as important as talent when it comes to making it as an athlete. “The great Kenyan runners all have an amazing simplicity about them,” he says. “That’s another trait I look for in an athlete. A calmness, not forgetting where they came from.”
Rhonex Kipruto at his training camp in Iten.ADHARANAND FINN
The next day, I’m sitting next to O‘Connell as we drive along an undulating dirt road, following Kipruto on a 45-minute fartlek session where he alternates between running two minutes fast and then two minutes slow. He’s a force to behold on the fast sections, dropping his companions as soon as each interval begins—one of whom has just won the Kenyan national 5,000-meter trials for the African championships. He has a powerful, punchy running style that seems just as fast going uphill as down.
“He’s not afraid to take on the pace,” O’Connell says, watching him proudly. “And he can up the pace imperceptibly. He’s relentless. That will scare the Ethiopians,” he adds, only half joking.
A few days earlier, he says Kipruto ran a 10K time trial along this same dirt road, which sits at an altitude of almost 8,000 feet, in under 30 minutes.
“And he was comfortable,” O’Connell, says. He’s smiling because he knows he has unearthed yet another diamond. “I’m not seeing anything to worry about with him. He has everything. All we’re doing is polishing.”