It's nice to see the running world's superstars treated as they should be — celebrated and hyped up — instead of merely being a marketing vessel for a shoe release.
If 2019 was all about the Nike Alpha- and Vaporfly, 2020 has been all about Joshua Cheptegei.
The Ugandan somehow turned this decidedly very bad pandemic-tinged year into perhaps the greatest string of performances by a distance runner in history.
Lost amidst all the bickering about the effect carbon plated shoes had upon distance running performances in 2019 and if Kipchoge was perhaps immortal (the answer, we now know is, sadly, probably not), was Cheptegei's quiet application for GOAT status. He won the World Cross-Country Championship title in Denmark (doesn't that seem like a decade ago now?), and then gold in the 10,000m at the World Athletics Championships in Doha. He capped off the year by tucking in a little 10K road world record in Valencia, Spain last December.
And so, 2020 was supposed to be Chep's big coming out party, with a showdown teed up against the great Mo Farah at the Tokyo Olympics in the 5,000m and 10,000m. Before the pandemic hit, it seemed a foregone conclusion that Cheptegei was going to mop the track with Sir Mo, ushering in a new dominant force in distance running. Instead, the 24-year-old found himself locked down in Uganda with his coach, Addy Ruiter, and his tight-knit crew of training partners, first preparing for races that would never happen, and finally being forced to create new goals amidst a mess of uncertainty.
But Cheptegei appears to be a "let's make some world-record lemonade out of these pandemic-spoiled lemons" kind of guy. And he and his crew began quietly building towards a series of masterpieces. You can find some of their training on YouTube. It was nuts.
NN Running Team, the Dutch agency that reps Cheptegei, curated a pair of special events sculptured around him attacking the 5,000m and 10,000m world records — two seemingly untouchable world records (both held by the great Kensisa Bekele, also a NN teammate, along with Eliud Kipchoge). The 10,000m event was purely a NN production, staged solely for their athletes and streamed globally for free on YouTube. NN Running are singlehandedly elevating the sport-as-entertainment at the moment, and the 10,000m event was a slick and polished affair, clocking in at around 60 minutes and featuring a pair of incredible races (including the women's 5,000m world record run). Of course, they also produced an intriguing documentary fashioned around the event.
Here's a quick breakdown of Cheptegei's last 12 months:
Dec. 1, 2019: 10K road world record (26:38) [note: it's since been lowered by Ronex Kipruto to 26:24)
Feb. 16, 2020: 5K road world record (12:51)
Aug. 14: 5,000m world record (12:35.36)
Oct. 7: 10,000m world record (26:11)
Oct. 17: 59:21 half-marathon debut at the World Athletics Half-Marathon Championships
That's one hell of a 12-month run.
What's exciting about all of this, beyond the shiny new world records, is that NN Running have invested heavily to play up their star, letting Cheptegei's personality take the lead, building upon his legend, and in the process creating a summer of events that were pretty damned entertaining.
As they did with Kipchoge, NN hired a video crew to shadow Cheptegei for his last world record attempt, a 10,000m time trial in Valencia, Spain, dubbed Taking the Throne.
The resulting 18-minute piece provides a bit of insight into Cheptegei's preparation and his rather charming, low-key demeanour. It's too bad we didn't get a deeper dive into his training while still in Uganda in order to build up the lore further, as NN has done with Kipchoge's seminary-like Global Sports Camp, or more of a behind-the-scenes view of what went into putting together this highly unusual event, especially given the obvious challenges due to the pandemic. Hopefully, NN Running Team will give us more time behind the curtain next year as Cheptegei prepares for the Tokyo Olympics.
It's hard to make a time trial exciting, and NN Running delivered a surgical strike on YouTube for track fans that, for one afternoon in October, had us yelling at our screens, cheering for a new running star, forgetting about how horrible year it has been otherwise.