EXCLUSIVE: Rivals Cheruiyot and Manang’oi on teaming up for innovative new Impossible Games event

World 1,500 metre champions Timothy Cheruiyot and Elijah Manang’oi will lead a Kenyan 'Team Cheruiyot' against Norway’s 'Team Ingebrigtsen' on June 11.

By Evelyn Watta ·

Kenya's Timothy Cheruiyot and Elijah Manang’oi are both world 1500m champions.

The runners are based at the Rongai Athletics Club, where they follow a similar training program under the watchful eye of coach Bernard Ouma.

Usually, the track rivals compete against one another. But in light of the continued concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic, the talented duo will put their rivalry aside and join forces for an innovative virtual 2,000 metre event.

The newly-formed Team Cheruiyot will race against Norwegian brothers Team Ingebrigsten (Henrik, Filip, and Jakob) as part of the Impossible Games on June 11.

While the Europeans compete at the Bislett Stadium in Oslo, Cheruiyot, Manangoi, Edwin Meli, Vincent Keter, and Timothy Sein will race at Nairobi's Nyayo National Stadium.

Olympic Channel caught up with reigning world 1500m champion Cheruiyot and 2017 world gold medallist Manang’oi at their training camp in Ongata Rongai, on the outskirts of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.

They promise plenty of thrills for athletics fans.

“On paper it’s team Cheruiyot, but it’s the Kenyan flag that we hope to fly high. It should be a fun event and we are eager to entertain our fans who have missed watching us in action,” Cheruiyot told the Olympic Channel after an intense training session.

“We want to run under 4 minutes 44 seconds, that won’t be easy at high altitude but it’s achievable.” - Timothy Cheruiyot to Olympic Channel

Elijah Manangoi leads Timothy Cheruiyot during a training session at Nyayo Stadium, Nairobi on June 5,2020.

Back in training

When all racing was suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic in March, Cheruiyot and Manang’oi left their training camp in accordance with Kenya’s social distancing orders.

Their minds switched focus from competing at the Olympics to staying safe, as they retreated to their respective villages and became engrossed in farm life.

“Before I left the camp, I was deep in my cross-country season. Then I moved to my rural home in Bomet central [in the Rift Valley], where I farm," Cheruiyot told Olympic Channel.

"I grow maize and potatoes. On some days I did my long runs just to keep in shape. But I had not stepped on the track for any speed works this year.”

Despite lockdown frustrations, the break from competition has allowed Manang’oi to fully recover from the stress fracture in his leg that forced him to skip the 2019 Worlds. His last race was in Nairobi in August 2019.

“I am feeling much better now. I am 100% pain-free. I am also in good shape, as I have managed to maintain my running weight, which is between 58-59kg,” said the two-time World medallist.

“I was working out at my home gym and doing some long runs. I have also been very busy on the farm. I have many acres of land where I grow wheat, maize, and rear some cows both for dairy and beef production.”

Virtual race draws

Both men are now excited to be back in camp, training together as they have done over the last six years.

At first, they struggled to grasp the concept of competing virtually over an unusual distance, while fans watch on from afar.

Each team will begin with five runners, that get scaled down to three. The winner of the race will be the team with the best overall time for three runners.

The competition will be broadcast on live TV as a split-screen, another innovative first in the history of athletics.

“I hope this is not [our] future," said the softly-spoken Cheruiyot, pleased to have a chance at racing but cautious with the digitised format.

“We may find ourselves doing more virtual races this year, but we can’t wait to go back on the track and race real-time. That is where the fun is.” - Timothy Cheruiyot to Olympic Channel.

Manang’oi was equally hesitant to fully embrace virtual runs, while also recognising the dilemma race organisers are facing as they yearn for a return to normality.

“I was telling coach [Bernard Ouma] that Oslo could be the start of virtual racing for the season. They could even shift Monaco [Diamond League] and just say run your race in Nairobi like you did last time.”- Elijah Manang'oi.

Rivals on track, friends off it

At 24-years-old, Cheruiyot - the three-time Diamond League champion - is also a Kenya Prisons inspector.

Manang’oi, aged 27, is a policeman. He hails from Narok county, the same area where world 800m record-holder David Rudisha was born.

During recent competitions including the Kenyan track and field championships, they were regularly breathing down each other’s neck heading towards the finish line.

At the London 2017 world champs, the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia's Gold Coast, and at the African championships in Nigeria later that year, Cheruiyot had to settle for silver behind his speedy teammate.

 Elijah Motonei Manangoi of Kenya celebrates as he crosses the line to win gold ahead of training partner Timothy Cheruiyot at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast.

“Most people can’t understand how two athletes can have the same coach and same goal,” offered the chatty Manang’oi whose father, Nelson was a former 400m national sprinter.

“We don’t have the ugly rivalry like, ‘I don’t want Cheruiyot to win this or jealousness’. Whenever I win a race, he will support me 100%. And when Cheruiyot wins I support him 100%. When I won the title in London, at the Commonwealth Games, African championships he supported me 150%.”- Elijah Manang'oi.

“Manangoi is a great friend of mine, we have a long history," Cheruiyot agreed. "When I first came here, he had already done some races and his guidance was immeasurable. I joined the camp with nothing I didn’t even have running shoes. Our coach bought me my first cooking stove.”

Perhaps it is Coach Ouma who summarised his top two athletes' bond the best.

“They are two athletes who are different in all perspectives, but they tend to compromise to work as a team and brotherhood and for the harmony to stay.”

From Left to right: Rongai Athletics Club coach Bernard Ouma, Timothy Cheruiyot, Elijah Manang'oi, Vincent Keter and Edwin Meli.

Running 'an escape'

Their relationship began six years ago when Cheruiyot, a novice 800m runner, moved to RAC to begin training as a professional.

Tired of taking temporary roles for money, his father encouraged him to return to a running career that had blossomed in school.

“For me running was an escape. There were so many problems back home after I finished high school." Cheruiyot explained.

"I would plough farming fields for people at a small fee. I even worked on a construction site, I did a lot of odd jobs."

My dad is the one who encouraged me and told me, ‘just try getting back to training as you were good in school'.” - Timothy Cheruiyot.

“When I am with Manang’oi I see my weaknesses. I may be strong in endurance, but he is so good in speed. We sharpen each other. I watch how he does the speed work and I know I have to close the gap to keep up with him,” said Cheruiyot who hopes he can follow in the footsteps of his icon Eliud Kipchoge.

He plans to gradually ease his way up to 5000m and sign off his career as a marathoner.

The family business

One of 80 siblings in a polygamous family of five wives, three of Manang’oi's younger brothers are also training at the Rongai training camp.

“He brings out the best in me,” he said of his training partner.

“When we are racing together, I can help improve his time in training pushing him during speed work. I track him as we lap, we push and motivate each other in training. We are almost like twins. When people see us training together, competing together, it’s inspiring as they see the beauty of sports. So when it comes to a competition we win easy.” - Elijah Manang'oi.

And it is the same approach they will take to the Nyayo National stadium at the Impossible Games. Each of them has a goal to achieve.

“Our final word before each of our races together is that we are going to run fast and may the best athlete win it. Then we are off. We are not the type to lurk behind the pack. We are fighters. We have this kind of heart that we want to go faster whenever we are racing, regardless of our form,” said Manangoi, who picked up a hamstring injury after the qualifying round at the Rio 2016 Olympics.

Cheruiyot was more direct on their target: “We want to run under 4:43-4.44 that won’t be easy but it's achievable. If you see us lapping in training, we are strong despite being off training for weeks.”

Winnie Chebet and Timothy Sein lead Timothy Cheruiyot,Edwin Meli,Elijah Manangoi and Vincent Keter during training at Nyayo Stadium on June 5, 2020.

Shared dreams

Once racing resumes, they want to pick up where they left off. They want to cultivate a competitive mindset that will propel them to Olympic glory and perhaps even a world record.

“We were preparing with one goal in focus. Olympics trials and the Olympics,” coach Ouma continued.

“ At Rongai Athletics Club we have all the medals, world titles, Commonwealth, but not the elusive Olympic medal.” - Bernard Ouma to Olympic Channel.

“I want an Olympic title and if it wasn’t for the coronavirus pandemic disruption, I would also have added another Diamond League trophy,” Cheruiyot added.

“I wanted by 2022 to scale up to 5000m. But despite the delay, my dream and hopes are unchanged. In 2021, I will line up to chase an Olympic medal.” - Timothy Cheruiyot.

“My biggest dream is the Olympic medal, that’s the only medal I don’t have in my life,” Manang’oi continued.

“I don’t care if it's gold or silver or bronze, I just want to have an Olympic medal. If I achieve that then my dream will have come true. Then I also want to lower my PB, to 3:27."

His personal best stands at 3:28.80.

“3:26 I can do, I am sure 150% it’s just a matter of time,” he said, referring to challenging Hicham El Guerrouj’s world record of 3:26.00 that has stood since 1999.

“We just need time and concentration. Coach, Cheruiyot and I, we keep saying that we can beat the world record. We have that belief that we can run very fast.” - Elijah Manang'oi

Timothy Cheruiyot and Elijah Manang'oi at the podium at the 2017 World Athletics Championships in London.

Cheruiyot came closest to the elusive mark during his Diamond League run at in Monaco in 2018, where his 3:28.41 was just 2.41 seconds away.

“For me, everything is possible for all those who believe. I always recite that bible verse.

“The time for the World record will come. I would like to attempt it. We just need good conditions and focus, as we have the right coach.”