Two-time world marathon champion Abel Kirui aims to defend his Chicago Marathon crown on Sunday (8th October). Here the NN Running Team “class clown” offers a window into his fascinating mind.

Gotta start ‘em young 

Born close to Kapsabet in Nandi County he recalls an active childhood that served as the perfect preparation for his career as an athlete. Living close to the Nandi Escarpment – a rugged long steep slope which plummets 1700m down to the valley below – he recalls with joy his time as a youngster running and playing on the escarpment.

“We used to set off at say 5am and we’d be gone for maybe five hours,” he says.

“I used to run in a group for a couple of hours and then... kaput. We were completely tired. We then found some running water to drink and eat guava for something in our stomach. Looking back, it provided a very good fitness background for my future running career.”

Inspired by The Boss Man

Abel Kirui moved from his base in Iten to join the training camp in Kaptagat in June this year motivated to be around and learn from the world’s leading marathoner Eliud Kipchoge. 

“I wanted to steal some good ideas from Eliud,” says Kirui, the 2009 and 2011 world marathon champion. “He is trying to run under two hours and I knew it would be amazing to be around him.

“Eliud is very smart, far smarter than me. He is so organised. If he says dinner is at 7pm, dinner will be at 7pm. If it is time for sleeping, it is time for sleeping. He is always on time.”

Abel Kirui during training in Kaptagat (Dan Vernon)

The 35-year-old marathon star has held a long-time respect for his teammate Kipchoge, who has won an astonishing eight of his nine marathons, and is impressed with his “strong and determined mind”.

“His discipline is his strength. Eliud is serious, but I’ve come to understand he is simply focused to achieve,” explains Kirui.

“He has made me a better athlete. When I lived outside the camp, I used to go home [to my wife and family] in the middle of the week, but now I stay until Saturday morning. He is always the first man to be ready to go to the gym at 6am. He is a man fighting with time.”

Race day ready

While many athletes focus on adequate proper rest the night before a big race, Kirui admits sleep for him before a big race is not always easy.

“I often have very little sleep, maybe only three hours,” admits the Kenyan, who set his marathon PB of 2:05:04 in Rotterdam eight years ago. “From 3am [on race day] I am often awake and I usually put the radio on to listen to some good music.”

A devout Christian, he always prays to God on race day. “I ask him for energy, and also for him to place me higher than my opponents,” he adds with a smile.

He then places his clothes on the bed to be organised and selects his race shoes for the big race.

“I try not to choose the most tightly fitted as you can end up suffering in a marathon,” he explains. “I like to choose the shoe which is most spacious at the front.” 

Abel Kirui during training in Kaptagat (Dan Vernon)

To avoid any stomach issues Kirui tries to keep his breakfast as normal as possible. Bread, chapati or pancakes are three of his favourite race day breakfast options. He likes to wash it down with tea and honey before getting a pre-race massage.

At the start line he prepares his mind for the battle ahead: “I say to myself ‘I need to win today’ and if I can’t win to at least finish top three”, he explains. “Training has been too painful to waste it all on a bad performance.”

I like to move it

It is fair to say Abel Kirui likes to bust some moves. Moments after winning his Daegu world champs marathon or at last year’s Chicago Marathon he defied the pain of running 42.2km – very quickly – to entertain the crowds and the millions watching on TV by breaking into some silky grooves.

Not that the experienced Kenyan choreographs the moves. It’s all spontaneous.

“In Daegu it happened automatically,” says Kirui. “I just danced from joy because I was so happy. I never rehearse my moves. I just have a feeling that I want to dance. I only know after I have won what move will come. I dance more with my arms after a marathon because the legs are tired.”

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He cites his compatriot and four-time world steeplechase champion Ezekiel Kemboi as his perfect dance partner. To create a dance for his NN Running Team he would also like to recruit the services of Usain Bolt.

“It would be a fun dance,” he adds. Someone please make this happen.

My Kind of Town (Chicago Is)

In 2016, Kirui claimed a memorable victory at the last edition of the Chicago Marathon, outkicking fellow countryman Dickson Chumba to win a slow run race by three seconds in 2:11:23. 

It was the first ever victory in a World Marathon Major race for the 2012 Olympic silver medallist and a significant breakthrough on the US stage.

“Victory there opened doors for me,” he says. “It was my biggest win in the US – a superpower country. I’d tried in New York before, but without luck. I am at peace with winning Chicago.

“My hope now is to defend it this year.”

Photography from Kaptagat: Dan Vernon