Kenyan Marathoner Mom Trains for Gold, Trusts in God
World champion Edna Kiplagat prays for perseverance as she keeps her eye on the prize that has eluded her thus far in her 23-year career as a long-distance runner.
Two-time marathon world champion Edna Kiplagat is a wife, mother of five children and a devout Catholic. In her 23-year career, the native Kenyan has distinguished herself as a top-four finisher at all six World Marathon Majors. Now training in Longmont, Colorado, a city named for its view of the towering Long’s Peak, she has her heart set on winning a gold medal for her homeland in the 2020 Olympic Games. Although she turned 40 in November, her incredible sprint near the end of this past year’s Boston Marathon, in which she closed a three-minute gap between her and the leader to claim second place, told the world she isn’t done yet. Her faith and Olympic medal quest call to mind St. Paul’s words from Philippians 3:14: “I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.”
Born and raised near Iten, Kenya, Kiplagat was discovered while in high school by Patrician Brother Colm O’Connell, the renowned 71-year-old missionary teacher and coach credited with producing four Olympic gold medalists and 25 world champions. Today, Kiplagat is coached by her husband, former runner Gilbert Koech. The couple married in 2001. Although currently living in Longmont, they still own a farm in Iten. Their children, who range in age from 4 to 26, include three who are adopted. Their two eldest were adopted before the couple had children of their own; the youngest was adopted after their two biological children were born.
Kiplagat recently spoke to the Register at her parish, St. Francis of Assisi in Longmont, about her faith and the role it plays in her life. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
How and when did you get into competitive running?
In December 1995 I went to a three-week training camp at the invitation of Brother O’Connell. The following year, 1996, I represented Kenya in World Junior Championships track and field in Sydney, Australia. [Kiplagat won silver in the 3,000-meter run. She won bronze in the 1998 WJC in Annecy, France.] After high school, in 2006, I made the team to the World Cross Country Championships in Fukuoka, Japan. A big year for me was 2010, when I won the Los Angeles and the New York City marathons.
Are you training to compete in the 2020 Olympics? If so, when are tryouts, and when will you know if you make the team?
Yes, it is my dream to win gold in the Olympics. That’s the fundamental win I’m missing in my career. Tryouts are after the Boston Marathon [April 2020], and then the Kenyan athletics federation will do selections.
This past year, after trailing the leader by some three minutes, you rocketed to close the gap and place second in the women’s division of the Boston Marathon, which you won in 2017. Do you have other races coming up?
I am preparing for a half-marathon as a tuneup race before the Boston Marathon.
Your husband gave up competitive running to serve full time as your coach. What are the benefits and challenges for your marriage and family of having your husband serve as your coach?
To have him serve as my coach means we have a mission as a couple every day. We encourage each other, build each other up and challenge each other to reach new heights. When I am tired, he encourages me to keep stretching and to keep pressing forward. He helps to prepare and plan the program for my training, for the kids and the whole family. We don’t agree sometimes, but we have learned that when we leave it up to God, he will change what needs to be changed. We were both raised in the Catholic faith, so we are blessed in that.
What role does faith play in your fitness training and in your life?
Faith is the assurance — that is, confidence, belief and trust — of things hoped for but not yet received (Matthew 11:1).
For example, in Matthew 9:27-30, two blind men come to Jesus and ask him to heal them. Jesus asks them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” They reply, “Yes, Lord!” Then he touches their eyes saying, “According to your faith, let it be done to you.” And their eyes are opened. Their faith that Jesus could give them sight was the substance or reality of what they hoped for. It gave them the confidence or trust that they would receive what they asked for. They believed. They had faith in advance that it would be done.
An Old Testament example is that of Daniel’s three friends who refused to bow down to King Nebuchadnezzar’s gold statue (Deuteronomy 3). Those who refused to bow were threatened with being thrown alive into a fiery pit. The young Jewish men Hananiah, Azariah and Mishael, who refused to bow to the image, told King Nebuchadnezzar, “If that is the case, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the fiery furnace and will deliver us from your hand. But if not, let it be known to you that we do not serve your gods nor will we worship the gold image you have set up.” Their faith/trust was the substance of what they hoped for, and it was the evidence of that which was not yet seen or received. They believed God would deliver them, and he did, because they obeyed his commandments and did not bow down to worship any other gods.
For me, I believe our plans and training will be successful. We always say a prayer for everything we do, and we rely on God.
How do you balance physical training, marriage and family?
Since I started running I have had many people supporting me, from my parents, to coaches, to my husband and kids. The journey has been great — it doesn’t feel like it has been 20-plus years! I have enjoyed each year and lots of success.
When we got married, we had to have someone take care of our children, which made it easy for me to train without thinking of family duties after training. I also took adequate time off to recover from my pregnancies. We have a beautiful family, and we respect each other. They understand the importance of my training and running, so they support me.
Together with my husband, we have planned what we want to do from the day we met. God has brought us together. He has good plans for us. He has good things in store. He brought us together to help each other to succeed and to become all he created us to be — to help each other to reach our potential.
When did you move to Longmont, and why?
We moved to America in January . We chose to live in Longmont because we knew it well, having visited it often. Since 2010 we have usually trained and lived in Boulder. We have many friends who live in Longmont [which is located just outside Boulder]. It is a welcoming city. Also, Longmont has an altitude of 4,979-feet above sea level, which is very good for training!
What are your children’s ages, and do they live with you?
Mercy, 26, finished college last year. Collins, 18, finished high school this year. Carlos, 15, and Wendy, 11, live with us here in Longmont. Faith is 4 and is living with her grandmother.
You own a farm in Iten. What type of farm is it?
It is a small farm. We plant maize and beans. We have cows, sheep and goats.
What is Save Our Girls?
There are several charitable works that most of the people from my community do together. The most recent one, “Save Our Girls,” was formed to assist and educate young girls from rural villages about menstruation as they transition to puberty. Many girls quit going to school when menstruating because they are ashamed. [The topic is still taboo in many developing nations.] We want them to know this is a normal part of life. We plan to build awareness and provide menstrual hygiene products.
Is there anything you would like to add?
Everything I have done and gone through is because God has blessed us as a family, not just me as an individual. What I have done is due to the people who have supported me through the successes and the failures. I am really grateful for what I have achieved and that I still have an opportunity to try for what has eluded me. I will continue praying to persevere. I know everything is achieved by prayer, and I know God will answer.
Roxanne King writes from Denver.