Feature | Athletics

Exclusive! Unlocking the secrets of world 5000m record holder Joshua Cheptegei

The reigning cross country and 10,000m world champion reveals in an Olympic Channel interview that he intends to break "role model" Kenenisa Bekele's 10,000m world record before doubling up at Tokyo 2020.

By Evelyn Watta ·

Ahead of the 2017 World Cross Country Championships on home soil, Joshua Cheptegei believed he could become the first Ugandan to take the senior men's title.

But when the opportunity arose in the capital Kampala, he failed.

Having led for most of the race, fatigue took over and he eventually staggered to the finish in 30th place.

Cheptegei has certainly turned that disappointment into a positive, winning two golds at the 2018 Commonwealth Games before a magnificent 2019 in which he won the world cross country title and the 10,000m at the Doha World Championships on the track.

In August, the 23-year-old stunned the world by smashing Kenenisa Bekele’s 5000m world record at the Monaco Diamond League on his first track appearance of the season.

Now he is "confident" of breaking the Ethiopian's 10,000m mark, which has stood since 2005, in Valencia on 7 October.

Speaking exclusively to Olympic Channel from his training base at altitude in Kapchorwa, eastern Uganda, he says he attributes his success to that setback on home soil three years ago.

"I was able to understand and believe that I am a strong man, and that's why you can see a lot records are falling." - Joshua Cheptegei

Joshua Cheptegei of Uganda celebrates after breaking the 5,000m world record during the Monaco 2020 Diamond League meeting at Stade Louis II on August 14, 2020 in Monaco.

Joshua Cheptegei: "2020 the right moment to make history"

Cheptegei had huge plans for his second Olympic Games after finishing eighth in the 5000m and sixth in the 10,000m at Rio 2016.

This was the year he hoped the world would see more of his brilliance after his world title triumphs in Aarhus and Doha.

Then came the COVID pandemic resulting in the postponement of Tokyo 2020, but these have only succeeded in slowing him down momentarily.

In fact, the lockdown stimulated his career ambitions of “becoming a world record holder in the 5000m, 10,000m and later the half marathon and maybe also the full marathon”.

He said, "I had a lot of ambitions and dreams for 2020. The first one, of course, was to win the Olympic gold medal in Tokyo. 2020 would be the Olympic Games, 2021 World Championships and 2022 there could be something different.

"There would not be a right moment to try and break the world record. So I told myself even if we have COVID-19 now, this year presents me the right moment and the right opportunity to try and make history. That was the genesis of thinking about breaking the world record."

With this goal in mind, the 2014 U-20 world 10,000m champion stepped up his training in Kapchorwa where he also grew up as one of nine children.

The area is a paradise for Ugandan endurance athletes as it has the perfect altitude of 2,600m.

The lockdown in Uganda meant he could only train on the hills around his home, switching between endurance and interval sessions.

Being unable to do any speed work on the track left him "demoralised".

"In Kapchorwa, we don't have a Tartan (synthetic) track. Here we have a grass track which offers a different service. I was demoralised at one point. But my training partners, my coaches, kept telling me, 'Joshua, when you are going through a storm something good is about to happen afterwards.'"

After Moses Kipsiro's double gold at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, the Ugandan government commissioned a national high altitude training centre including a 400m track in Kapchorwa to be ready before London 2012.

It is still far from complete.

Cheptegei himself has been constructing a nearby 400m gravel track and training base which should be finalised in 2021.

For now, he and his fellow athletes must travel 300km to Kampala to gain track practice in the national stadium.

“I was able to travel to Kampala for a one-week training on track in June. During that week we were able to do a session on Tuesday, on Thursday, and on that Saturday we did something special,” he recalled.

"We actually did 3.2km within the world record pace, so that give me more extra motivation, extra energy to say, 'Joshua, you know what? You are ready for it.'”

"I can still do 12:29, 12:30"

With the borders shut to the public during the nationwide lockdown, Cheptegei needed special assistance to get to Monaco.

He flew to the Kenyan capital Nairobi on a chartered flight organised by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.

It then took him another 40 hours to arrive in Monaco, but nothing could distract him from his goal.

He said, "When I crossed the 3000m point, I was looking at the stopwatch and it was at 7:35. I knew I just needed to maintain 60 seconds per lap for me to break the world record."

Cheptegei crossed the line in 12:35.36, breaking the old record by 1.99s.

He reflected, "I am a proud man having broken the world record. I know that someone may break it soon, because now a lot of people are inspired by this recent performance.

"I believe that in normal conditions when the body is really strong, like I was in Monaco with moderate temperatures, I can still do 12:29, 12:30." - Joshua Cheptegei

Repeat performance?

Cheptegei has come a long way since getting into running "rather late in the final years of high school". His first love was football

"In primary school, I mainly played football for fun. I had the passion to run and whenever we would go out to graze the animals, we would mark the grazing field and we would run with the other kids."

Now he has his sights set on lowering another of Bekele’s long-standing track records.

He will return to Valencia, where he set a 10k road world record last December, to try and set a new world record at 10,000m which he calls his "favourite" track event.

His personal best is over 30 seconds outside Bekele's mark of 26:17.53 set in Brussels in 2005 with no other athlete coming within five seconds of that time.

While he admits "Kenenisa’s 10,000m world record is one of the toughest in the books", he is bullish about his chances of making history inside the Turia Stadium.

"As my performance in Monaco showed, I am in outstanding form. I would like to make the most of my current shape by attacking the 10,000m world record and hopefully we can once again create something truly special in Valencia.

"It has been in my dreams to break the 10,000m world record. It will happen!"

Ethiopia's Kenenisa Bekele after breaking the world record in the men's 10,000 metres race during the Brussels Golden League athletics meet on August 26, 2005.

After this record attempt, Cheptegei will stay in Europe as he aims to make a winning debut at the World Athletics Half Marathon Championships in Gdynia, Poland on 17 October.

So what’s his secret?

"The secret for my success is that I am not always contented with whatever achievement I make. When I make an achievement like I did in Monaco, it makes me hungrier for more victories and more challenges. So now to me, Monaco is a done deal.

"What keeps me going is that every day I want to be the best. Every day comes and presents an opportunity for me to become the best of the best."

Runner-up Yomif Kejelcha congratulates 10,000m winner Joshua Cheptegei as bronze medallist Rhonex Kipruto looks on at the 2019 World Championships in Doha

The famous failure that inspired Cheptegei

Cheptegei found his motivation at his lowest point.

In 2017, he was Uganda’s favourite for the senior men’s cross-country world title on home soil.

He had a seemingly unassailable lead in the 10km race, but things unravelled spectacularly about one kilometre from the finish line.

The fluid running quickly turned to drunken reeling with the video of his finish going viral.

He last watched the race when preparing for the 2019 World Cross Country Championships in Aarhus which he won.

"That race changed my mindset because I approached it in a very positive way. It gave me time to really think and see how blessed and how gifted I am.

"I gave my all and I was able to understand and see that I am a strong man and that's why you can see a lot of records are falling. And so many records are yet to fall, and it's only because of this race and that is Kampala."

And Cheptegei still harbours some bitterness at some of the remarks made about him following that disappointment.

"So many people said a lot of negative things about me. The same people who were criticising me in 2017 are the same people who are now saying, 'He is our man.' It is really outrageous, ridiculous but such things happen."

After that cross-country success came his first world title on the track and now the 5000m world record.

Cheptegei's run is among a number of superb track and field performances despite serious disruption to the calendar due to coronavirus.

That Monaco meeting was the first Diamond League event of the year, five months after its scheduled start.

So what does he think the reason is for athletes coming back so strongly?

"I believe that most of the athletes have gone back to the drawing board. "They have seen that they had opportunities [in the past] and now they understand that when you have the opportunity to race, they do it with all their might.

"The other aspect is that most of the athletes are well rested and when you have a peaceful mind and the body is healthy, you can do so many things.

"These kinds of enormous performances could reflect how running is going to happen in the future. People are going to have a lot motivation going to the Olympic Games next year."

Ugandan plans Tokyo distance double

Cheptegei is adamant that his achievements so far are just the beginning with the Olympic Games at the front of this thinking.

He is determined to win back the 5000m and 10,000m titles for East Africa after Britain's Mo Farah won the double at both London 2012 and Rio 2016.

Bekele - who like Cheptegei is part of the Dutch-based NN Running Team operation - won both events at Beijing 2008.

While the Ethiopian is now a full-time marathon runner, Farah's switch to the road was less successful. He plans to defend his 10,000m title in Tokyo.

Farah also has a world record of his own this year, breaking Haile Gebrselassie's one hour best in Brussels earlier this month.

Cheptegei said, "It will be a great to race with Mo Farah in Tokyo. I never got a good chance to race with him as I was still trying to catch up with the prime years of my career. He now finds me the way I found him when he was in his prime and I am in my prime.

"My dream is to become Olympic champion. I'm still in love with the 10K on track. If I can first win the 10k then try and maybe medal in the 5k or even win both, that would be special for me."

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Inspired to greatness

Cheptegei revealed that he has been greatly influenced by two of the greats of distance running - Bekele and marathon king Eliud Kipchoge.

He admires Bekele’s resilience and is determined to acquire a similarly strong mental outlook by reading books like 'Grit' by Angela Duckworth which centres around passion and perseverance being the keys to success.

Cheptegei says of Bekele, "He's somebody who has achieved a lot of things and that's why I call him my role model. He really inspires me a lot. I dream of becoming great like him. I know I still have a lot of steps to take."

He also looks up to Kipchoge, the fastest man in marathon history, and trained with him at his famous high-altitude base in Kaptagat, Kenya.

"Eliud is my idol because I’ve learnt a lot of things from his career... he's somebody who never gets satisfied with an achievement. He always wants to pursue new challenges and that's how life should be.

"He once told me that, 'When you are constantly negative, you don’t achieve much. You don’t always need to complain. Just forget it, leave it in your past and look for new challenges'." Joshua Cheptegei on Eliud Kipchoge

Kipchoge and Bekele - second on the marathon all-time list - go head-to-head at the London Marathon on 4 October just three days before Cheptegei's own record attempt.

Unsurprisingly, he won't be drawn on who he thinks will emerge victorious.

"“Both guys have really inspired me, they are my role models. All I can say is, 'May the best man win.'"