Books and pens not fortunes first brought Geoffrey Kamworor to the sport of athletics.
A keen reader and elegant speaker, at high school the two were offered as prizes, ones which Kamworor would pick up with ease:
“I could defeat everyone but it was just for fun. I could run 800, 1500, 3000, 5000, 10,000m.”
Growing up in Chepkorio, less than 15km from the Global Sport Communications camp where we now sit, the two-time World Cross-Country Champion picked up those tokens and returned to his studies.
Learning was the priority, remaining so until after he left, the carrot of education the only thing that eventually started to lure him in:
“It’s only after the high school that I wanted to get a scholarship and go and study in the USA.
I did the exam and one of the requirements was that you should be running so we did two time trials. I won them and then the feeling came.
I started enjoying running. That love, that passion and that was it.”
Kamworor turned down the scholarship. his precocious rise left others to persuade him that running as a full-time pursuit was a better option.
That was 2010, Kamworor becoming one of the first members of the GSC camp in Kaptagat. Whilst the camp in its current guise has many of the trappings of an elite distance hub, the era before was a more modest affair.
A cluster of small accommodation blocks made up Kamworor’s home:
“I joined here, rented the house, trained here. After about two months one of my friends took me to Finland.”
From June to August, the 17-year-old raced nine times from 1500m up to 5000m across Finland and Sweden. He broke eight minutes over 3000m barely a few months after taking up the sport seriously.
An unspectacular summer in the context of what was to come, by the following spring he had taken the U20 title at the World Cross-Country Champs in Punta Umbria, Spain.
19 when he first broke the 60 minute barrier for the half, his marathon debut was the subject of the film, the Unknown Runner, finishing 2:06:12 for third in the 2012 Berlin Marathon.
Kamworor has since gone on to win five senior world titles, three over the half and two in cross-country. He has won the New York Marathon twice and briefly held the half marathon world record in 2019.
It is a career all but the era’s greatest runners would take. The problem for Kamworor, however, is that is the company to which he aspires.
Since Kamworor’s marathon debut, one year before his friend, mentor and senior of seven years, Eliud Kipchoge, 25 different athletes have broken 2:04.
The barrier has turned into a benchmark for the world’s best, and one surprisingly Kamworor is yet to surpass.
Unlike many of his teammates, Kamworor’s relationship with the distance is not one traditionally associated with total focus.
As recently as 2019 he has competed on the track and the temptation of being the world’s best over the half has provided a lucrative distraction.
2020 is when things were supposed to change, the then 27-year-old committing to mastering the distance that has made his training group so celebrated.
We know what happens next, the COVID-19 pandemic hitting, but its effects for Kamworor were more unexpected than most.
Ordered by the government to disband the training camp, fresh off his second New York marathon win, Kamworor returned home.
Long run day
“It was a Thursday morning and always on Thursday we go for long run.
I woke up that day and I wanted to go for 30km. I just came out of my house. It was about a kilometre away from where I live and then the motorbike hit me from behind.
I fell down and when I woke up, the first thing I did is try to run. To test if my legs were still there.”
Kamworor was yet to realise he had broken the tibia in his lower leg, small particles of bone scattered throughout his limb on impact with the speeding motorbike.
Initially he thought it was just his head that had born the brunt of the force.
“Immediately when the motorbike knocked me down what came in my mind was just about my career. The running, because it’s something that was inside me and that was something I could do better. Nothing else.”
The profession he had committed to, against initial instinct abandoning obvious academic talents, like his leg, shattered into pieces.
A long way back
The motorbike driver who hit Kamworor dropped him at the local hospital, driving away on arrival. The state of his injuries, after X-Ray and stitches, slowly revealed themselves.
After surgery, Kipchoge came to visit him in hospital.
“Just relax, keep the focus and be determined but believe,”he told Kamworor.
Almost all the year, Kamworor is surrounded by 20 or so others at the GSC Camp. A family he describes of brothers and sisters. Saturday and Sunday night at home, barely a week off on holiday per year.
Whether up on the escarpment, laps and laps of the Moi University track or the beautiful Kaptagat forest, it is a life to which he has grown accustomed and one he ultimately enjoys.
In a instant, replaced by the four walls of his compound.
“For the first few weeks I stayed indoors at the house. I didn’t go outside, past the compound. So for that two months it was the hardest time.”
Surrounded by family, Kamworor is keen to emphasise their support, the value of the rare time they shared together but such proximity can also emphasise the need to provide.
“I only asked the doctor one thing, if I was going to run again?”
The response was positive, but cautious. It would be half a year until things would be back to relative normality.
“When I went out after, going for check ups at the hospital I always saw runners running and it would always hurt my heart so much.”
2020 became a write-off , though slowly it did have its moments of joy:
“During my first run I think I posted in the group chat that it was one of my proudest days because I started working again.”
His modest recovery meant a return to the GSC camp but not to his usual group.
Kamworor would watch as the marathon men pulled off into the distance, training with the women’s group on long runs. Trusting in what coach Patrick Sang was asking of him, Kamworor’s return to racing was met with an unpleasant truth.
In the two years that had passed since his 2019 half marathon world record (58:01) a new star had emerged in the form of compatriot Kibiwott Kandie.
A year on from injury Kamworor could only watch on as the man who had taken his world record strode away from him over the final kilometres of the Istanbul Half.
It was a brutal reminder that elite level athletics is quick to move on.
Fourth that winter in Valencia back over the marathon distance, 18th at Boston in the spring of 2022, as the months ticked by onlookers questioned whether Kamworor had had his best days.
“I personally trusted that I’ll do it again. I’ll come back.”
Time to commit
Three years had passed since a motorbike put paid to a rising tide in the career of Kamworor.
Then a world record holder, New York marathon champ, Kamworor entered the streets of London a dark horse in a field full of studs.
At 30km the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf dominate a five man group. The defending champion to his right, Amos Kipruto, the world champion, Tamirat Tola, tracking his feet.
Kamworor sits in the pack, confidence rising:
“When the rain started at around 25km I just told myself that today I must win this one.”
Kelivn Kiptum makes his move, a 4:33 mile already below two-hour marathon pace, followed by a 4:23. In an era of ever mind-blowing performances still an unprecedented surge.
Behind him one man commits:
“I have to make my own decision now and follow him.”
As Kiptum hits the front, no one dare chase. That is except the white vest, red tights and black cap of Kamworor. Caution has abandoned him.
“From 30km to the finish I ran alone. There was a point where I was alone with just the spectators on the side, no motorbike behind, no motorbike in front.
It gave me a great boost of self-belief that from now on whatever happens I can believe in myself from 30km and run to the finish.”
Kiptum went on to run the fastest second half in history (59:49), coupled with the fastest five km ever recorded over the distance (13:49).
Numbers so crazy they beggar belief. Behind him Kamworor plows his path. Outrunning the rest of the field, he finishes in 2:04:23.
A personal best by exactly a minute but more importantly a step closer to the world’s best.
Kamworor is a student, once of the books and now of the roads. Those early lessons came easy to him but in seeking his potential he faces ever-harder tests.
Talent and intellect, it is persistence that suggests the best may be yet to come.
Featured image and all images courtesy of the NN Running Team