Only months after he crossed the finish line at the 2023 Bank of America Chicago Marathon in world record fashion, 24-year-old running star Kelvin Kiptum has died in a heartbreaking tragedy in Kenya that has left the racing world -- and beyond -- stunned.
“We are shocked and saddened by the news of the recent death of Kelvin Kiptum," Chicago Marathon Race Director Carey Pinkowski said in a statement Monday. "Kelvin was a once in a generation athlete at the front of his career and there is no doubt in my mind that his greatest achievements were ahead of him. We were lucky to witness his greatness on the streets of Chicago."
Kiptum, who was set to be a superstar of long-distance running and was a top contender for gold at the Olympics in Paris this year, was killed along with his coach, Gervais Hakizimana, in a car crash in Kenya.
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Their vehicle was the only one involved in the crash late Sunday and Kiptum was driving when it veered off a road and into a ditch before hitting a tree, police said.
It happened near the town of Kaptagat in western Kenya, in the heart of the high-altitude region that’s renowned as a training base for the best distance runners from Kenya and across the world.
Kiptum was born and raised in the area.
A third person, a 24-year-old woman, was also in the car and was taken to a hospital with serious injuries, police said. Kiptum and Hakizimana died at the scene.
Kenya’s Kiptum was 24 and one of the most exciting prospects to emerge in road running in years, having broken the world record in only his third appearance in an elite marathon. His record, set at last year’s Chicago Marathon, was ratified by international track federation World Athletics just last week.
"While he will be celebrated for his record-breaking performances, I will remember him as an incredible talent and as an even more magnificent person," Pinkowski said. "The sport of marathon running has suffered a tragic loss. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family.”
Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson said Kiptum and Hakizimana's absence will be "profoundly felt" and noted that their "legacies will forever continue to provide inspiration to athletes worldwide."
Kiptum's death reverberated through Kenya, where runners are the biggest sports stars. Kenyans have also gotten used to tragic tales involving their top athletes after a number have died in road crashes, other accidents and domestic violence cases.
“He was only 24,” Kenyan President William Ruto said in a statement offering his condolences. “Kiptum was our future.”
Athletes and family members, including Kiptum’s father, gathered at the hospital mortuary where the bodies of Kiptum and his coach were taken. One of the athletes, former women’s steeplechase world champion Milcah Chemos, struggled to speak while breaking down in tears.
“I have no words to explain the loss of Kelvin,” she said.
Kenneth Kimaiyo, a friend of Kiptum, said he arrived at the crash scene soon after it happened and Kiptum had been thrown out of the car. Photos showed the silver car with a badly mangled roof and the windshield crushed flat.
Kiptum was the first man to run the marathon in under 2 hours, 1 minute in an official race when he set the world record of 2:00.35 in Chicago in October, beating the mark of fellow Kenyan and marathon great Eliud Kipchoge, who is the reigning two-time Olympic champion.
Kiptum and Kipchoge were expected to provide an enticing all-Kenyan battle for marathon gold in Paris and Kiptum was due to start his season at the Rotterdam Marathon in April, which would have been his first event since breaking the world record.
“An athlete who had a whole life ahead of him to achieve incredible greatness,” Kipchoge said in a message paying tribute.
World Athletics President Sebastian Coe was one of the first to offer his condolences in a statement on X, formerly Twitter.
“We are shocked and deeply saddened to learn of the devastating loss of Kelvin Kiptum and his coach, Gervais Hakizimana,” Coe wrote.
“It was only earlier this week in Chicago, the place where Kelvin set his extraordinary marathon World Record, that I was able to officially ratify his historic time. An incredible athlete leaving an incredible legacy, we will miss him dearly.”
David Rudisha, Kenya’s two-time Olympic champion in the 800 meters, wrote on X that Kiptum’s death was “a huge loss.”
Kiptum had immediate success by running the fastest time ever by a marathon debutant at the 2022 Valencia Marathon. The following year, he won the London and Chicago races, two of the most prestigious marathons in the world. He set a new course record at the London Marathon last April and then became the fastest marathoner in the world months later.
While young and new to the circuit, he had already run three of the seven fastest marathon times ever recorded and was seen as a rare talent.
But he was also the latest Kenyan star to die in devastating circumstances.
David Lelei, an All-Africa Games silver medalist, died in a car crash in 2010. Marathon runner Francis Kiplagat was among five people who were killed in a crash in 2018. Nicholas Bett, who won gold in the 400 meter hurdles at the 2015 world championships, also died in a car crash in 2018.
Rudisha, former 10,000 meters world champion Moses Tanui and Olympic silver medalist Paul Tergat have all survived serious road accidents in the East African country.
Samuel Wanjiru, the 2008 Olympic marathon champion who was also tipped to be an all-time great, died in 2011 at the age of 24 after falling from a balcony at his home in Kenya.
Kenyans were perhaps most shocked when Agnes Tirop, a multiple cross-country world champion, was stabbed to death in her home in 2021, allegedly by her husband. He was charged with murder.