• Curtis Anderson

OTC Elite’s Kipyego eyes USATF 15K championships

EUGENE, Ore. – Oregon Track Club Elite’s Sally Kipyego is expected to make her 2021 racing debut at the USATF 15K Championships in Jacksonville, Fla., on March 20.

The 35-year-old Kipyego has not competed since placing third at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials just over a year ago in Atlanta to earn a spot on Team USA at the Tokyo Olympics this summer. The global pandemic surfaced shortly after that race, effectively shutting down all racing opportunities.

Kipyego, who became an American citizen in 2017, spent the past year in her native Kenya with her husband, Kevin Chelimo, and their 3-year-old daughter, Emma. She took advantage of the off year with a “laid back” approach to training, while relying on her extended family to help with childcare.

Now in her 12th season under the tutelage of OTC Elite coach Mark Rowland, Kipyego is hoping to be in medal contention in the marathon at the Tokyo Olympics. She’s also targeting a fast 10K on the track in either April or May to get her qualifying standard for the 2022 World Championships at Hayward Field in Eugene.

The Olympic women’s marathon will be held on Aug. 7 in Sapporo. Kipyego will be joined on Team USA by Aliphine Tuliamuk and Molly Seidel.

Kipyego recently answered questions from media members on a video conference set up by USA Track & Field. The following excerpts from that Q&A have been slightly edited.

What are your racing plans between now and the Tokyo Olympics?

I was supposed to run the RAK Half Marathon (in the United Arab Emirates) this month, and that was obviously canceled, so now we’re looking at running in March. We have a race planned out (USATF 15K Championships) … over the last year, we have realized it’s kind of difficult to plan these things. So, if the opportunity presents itself, I would like to run a 10K in either April or May, and hopefully, get a qualifier for the 2022 World Championships, and then get ready for the Olympics. After May, I am pretty much preparing for the marathon for the next three months.

What does “laid back” training look like for you in terms of volume and intensity?

For me, laid back was running nothing more than 80 miles per week, mostly single runs, a fartlek here and there, some tempos and hills, but nothing intense. We wanted to make sure that if we were going to get an off year, the body would be rested a little bit to be fresher for the coming season. So, that was the objective. It was about 60-80 miles (per week) for me, but that’s behind me now. I’m full on getting ready for the Olympic season.

Are you a 10K runner now focused on the marathon, or a marathoner who is dabbling in the 10K or 15K or whatever distance you and Mark can find?

That is tricky. I feel like I really love the marathon, but to this day, I have actually not yet been comfortable in the marathon. That is where I am at this point. I think my head thinks I am still a 10K runner, but obviously, the body says something else … I love the 10K but for now, I am a marathoner trying to get faster, and the only way I can get faster, we believe, is to be able to run a quicker 10K. That way, I can translate that to running a faster marathon down the line.

What’s behind the decision to stay in Kenya for training instead of the United States?

The main reason is just convenience for our family. Since Kevin and I had Emma, my 3 ½ year old daughter, we spend more time in Kenya than in the U.S. … both my husband and I have our entire families back in Kenya, and that has been a lot of help … it has made it possible for me to train the way I like to train to be an elite runner, and so, we have spent more than half of the year in Kenya for the past few years. That’s because we have a lot of help around for childcare. I have to come back to the U.S. once every two months or so, to train with the team, to be part of the group, and to be around my coach, so he can see how we’re doing.

What has it been like to experience the pandemic in Kenya?

At the very beginning, when the pandemic hit, Kenya was very good at trying to minimize exposure. Because we live on a farm we are far away from a city and we try to stay far away from the city. (The pandemic) affected a lot of things, but infections here have not been as high as other parts of the world, which is good. And there haven’t been a lot of casualties. I think the government has done a good job of making sure that people are cautious about it. We still have curfews to this day, at 10 p.m. all the way to 5 in the morning. That started a few months ago … schools were closed pretty much all of last year, every grocery that you get, they take your temperature. Masks are mandated. You will be fined if you don’t wear a mask. The rules have been really strict, but for us as a family, we try to stay away from populated areas.

You won an Olympic medal in the 10K. What do you think your chances are of medaling this summer? Is that a realistic goal for you?

I feel like if I get good consistent training, which I have been able to do the last few years, I think I will have a chance to medal. That is the objective for this season. I know that it is possible. We’re talking about championships, and they are not the same as major marathons. For example, you can still be competitive in a championship because you are not running 2:14 or 2:12 marathon pace. If the race is being run at 2:20, most of us can run (at that pace) and put ourselves in there. I’m trying to get myself in 2:20 or sub-2:20 shape going into Tokyo. I think if I am in that kind of shape, my chances are pretty good at medaling.

Have you talked to Aliphine Tuliamuk about coming back after giving birth? What is it like to come back after so few months?

We’ve talked a few times and I tell her to enjoy motherhood and the other things will follow. It is different for different people, even for the same person with different children. The general rule of thumb is to listen to your body, and let your body guide you. That is the best thing I can tell anyone. Enjoy motherhood and listen to your body … It’s not easy. My experience was that it was not easy to come back. You go through body changes, priorities change, it’s challenging, but obviously it can be done. A lot of women have done this, and I know she tends to get fit quicker, so I think she will be fine.

Have you benefitted from a long block of training without racing, and have you been keeping an eye on what’s been going on in the U.S. on the track? Have you worn the new Nike spikes?

By having that period to put one training block on top of another, I think that has been good for me, and I hope it pays off down the road. And yes, I have been paying attention. The (American) women distance runners are doing amazing things at the moment. I just saw results from the 10K a few days ago, and I thought that was some incredible running. I still have hopes of running a good 10K, and even being in Eugene in 2022 (for the World Championships). I haven’t worn the new spikes, but I am coming to the U.S. in two weeks’ time, so I know I will have a chance to test those out.

The Olympic marathon course has been relocated north to Sapporo. It will still be summer, but probably 10 degrees Celsius cooler than in Tokyo. And compared to Atlanta, which really tested your cross country background, it’s a relatively flat course. Have you had any thoughts about the change to the course?

Yes, and that is why I am planning to run a 10K on the track, because we are trying to work on my speed. I think with that kind of a flat course, we’re looking at Yes, and that is why I am planning to run a 10K on the track because we’re trying to work on my speed … compared to Atlanta, that was a hilly course, and you needed a lot more strength training, this one is mostly flat, and it will test your speed a little more. We’ve been focused on shorter distances for a while now and look at doing that all the way to May. We’re trying to get my speed up to be able to compete and run well (at the Olympics).

Mark Rowland is your coach. What makes that relationship work?

Mark and I work really well together. He is not a very hands-on coach, so he lets you bring in new ideas and the way you perceive things. He allows that. From the get-go, we got along very well; our personalities blended together. If he gives you an overview of what you need to do, he doesn’t come back and micro-manage. I thrive in that. I just want to be left alone. Give me what I need to do, and let me go do my thing, and I will come back with the results. It works really well for us … I have spent more than 10 years with him. He has coached me from when I got out of college all the way to now. He knows my body well, and that’s why I come to Eugene all the time. Every few months, I have to be in Eugene for him to look at me running. He knows how my body operates, he knows how I run, he understands that. We have that relationship and it works really well for us.

Only a handful of athletes get a chance to run an Olympic marathon for two different countries. How do you think it is going to feel for you in Sapporo wearing a Team USA singlet for the first time instead of representing Kenya?

I’ve said this many times. Running for America was always something I wanted to do, but it is a choice. I chose to wear the U.S. jersey. For me, it’s an honor. I’ve said this so many times. It is a way to be grateful for the things that America has done for me and my family. It’s really that simple. Because coming to America, and being an American, has changed my life and my family’s life in so many ways. I feel it’s an honor to be able to represent this great nation, and to be proud to do that … I know I will have strong emotions, that’s for sure. No question about that. For me, it’s an honor, and I hope to represent (the U.S.) well.

How is your daughter doing?

Emma is fantastic. She started school, I mean, she’s 3 and a half, but there is a school about nine miles from our home, and after spending the last year at home with us, we felt she needed to be around other children … the classes are basically day care, but it is a school and they come home with homework, so I feel really grown up because I am helping with the homework in the evening, and prepping her to go to school at 6 in the morning. She will be traveling with me. They close schools (here) in about three weeks, and my husband and Emma will travel to the U.S. after school is closed.