It was about 4 p.m. in Iten, Kenya when Edna Kiplagat got hold of me on Skype. The connection was poor, so she tried different locations—the front porch, outside her farmhouse, before settling in the living room, comfortable and pretty with tiles on the walls, and pictures. Two of her five children, Carlos, 13, and Wendy, 9, had gotten home from school and were supposed to be doing their homework, but found it necessary to walk behind their mom several times, waving, mugging. Her husband, Gilbert Koech, was there too. Kiplagat—ponytailed, track jacketed, high cheekbones shining—was in her element, in the happy embrace of her family.
It’s almost impossible to overstate Kiplagat’s success as a runner. Two-time world champion, two-time World Marathon Majors champion, a sub-2:20 marathoner with a decade-long career at the very peak of the sport. Her Twitter profile reads Mother. Wife. Christian. Nike athlete. Two-time marathon world champion. in that order, and with any other athlete it might be seen as faux humility. But for Kiplagat, it’s the real deal.
Rooted in love for family as deeply as in the red soil of the Kenyan highlands, Kiplagat was the fourth of six children, raised on a typical small farm. In 1995, the athletics coach took the school’s best runner to a district race, where 16-year-old Kiplagat caught the eye of Brother Colm O’Connell, legendary teacher, coach, and proven judge of young talent. O’Connell invited her to a three-week training camp that took place over the Christmas break. Though it would mean a little less help on the farm, Kiplagat’s parents supported this first step in her running career.
“If you stay at home, you can train in the morning but you have to work in the afternoon [on the farm], so you are tired,” Kiplagat said. “My parents were happy for me to go and concentrate on training.”
It helped that Kenyan stars Catherine Ndereba, Sally Barsosio, Rose Cheruiyot, and Lornah Kiplagat (no relation to Edna; Kenyan surnames are not family names but rather indicate the circumstances of the child’s birth) had already pioneered running as a viable career for women, and Brother Colm’s camp came at no cost to the athletes or their families. The chance to train seriously paid off immediately, as Kiplagat placed fifth at World Junior Cross Country just a few months later, and second in the 3000 meters at World Junior Track and Field later that August. Though still in secondary school, her professional career was underway.
Following a well-worn path, Kiplagat moved to Iten after finishing school, joining throngs of up-and-comers and seasoned champions. That’s where she met, or rather re-met, Gilbert Koech—several years older and from her home district—who had already established himself as an international athlete. Even as a teenager, Kiplagat was steady, practical, not easily swayed by flashy talk and cheap promises, and all too aware of the many ways a girl from the countryside could be taken advantage of.
Tellingly, when she talked about what drew her to Koech, she mentioned his running resume (27 minutes for 10k, 2:14 for the marathon), and the fact that he helped her find a manager, get a passport, and provided a training program—not the usual stuff of romance, but things that demonstrated his understanding of the life, that he was trustworthy. They indicated a life partner. Rare in Kenya’s patriarchal society, Koech treated Kiplagat as an equal from the start, as athletes, as businesspeople, and eventually as husband and wife. They married in 2001, “a customary marriage” she said, which means no-frills. Koech is the only coach she’s ever had, and every detail of their life together—from the mileage she runs in a given week to the purchase of a tractor to adopting children—is a joint decision in an equal partnership.
U.S. athletes tend to put off having children until their running career is over but Kenyan women often integrate children and career, using pregnancy as a welcome break from intense training. Kiplagat had just started rolling at distances from 3000 meters to half marathon when she decided the time was right for baby number one. She stopped running completely in her third month. But motherhood came before her own baby was born. Kiplagat’s older sister passed away from breast cancer in Dec. 2003, leaving two children, Collins, 7, and Mercy, 2.
“I could see that my mother was getting too old to take care of them,” Kiplagat said. “It was the right time for me. I was not training, and taking care of them [Collins and Mercy] prepared me to be a mother.”
She and Koech adopted her sister’s children and a few months later, their son Carlos was born by cesarean section. In short order, she was dealing with major surgery, a newborn, a toddler, and a 7-year-old. She laughed, and said this was not overwhelming because she had her family to help—Gilbert’s mother, another sister, and Gilbert. Kiplagat gave her body a full year to recover, which together with the six months off while pregnant, totaled 18 months of complete rest from running. Instead of rushing her recovery, she focused fully on motherhood.
“I had to make sure my body was recovered,” she said, revealing a typically Kenyan intuitive approach to training and rest, supremely in touch with their bodies. “After that [year off], I started slowly for two months, then picked up training after three months. It was not difficult because I didn’t gain a lot of weight, I was very careful with everything I was taking into my body. I knew after I took a long break, my body would respond, and my husband would give me the right training program.”
With childcare help from her mother-in-law and a hired babysitter, Kiplagat picked up where she had left off almost two years prior. 2006 and 2007 marked years of heavy training and racing—cross country, track and on the roads—in which she continued to notch faster times. Koech too continued to race and coach his wife. She laughed when I asked about the athlete/coach relationship: “It’s not difficult. I don’t think of him as my husband when we are training. He’s the right one because he has coaching education and he understands me.”
Professionally, 2007 was a good year for Kiplagat, the businesswoman. She not only earned considerable prize money, but added a revenue stream by joining the police. Like corporate sponsors, the Kenyan civil services, prisons, and the police hire runners who are paid as employees. Kiplagat said she is also responsible for the police force’s fitness program.
Feeling tired at the end of 2007, Kiplagat saw it was time for another motherhood break, again, deserving of her full attention for 18 months. Daughter Wendy was born in 2008.
The phrase, “I sat down with my husband and together we decided…” prefaced every milestone and turning point in Kiplagat’s career. Having changed managers three times over the years, the two took an entirely different tack. After careful study of managers worldwide—not just those familiar few who spend months in Kenya signing up recruits and may represent fifty or more athletes at a time—they settled on one who had never recruited in Kenya and represented just seven athletes.
“Out of the blue, Gilbert and Edna came up to me after the 2009 Rock ‘n’ Roll Virginia Beach Half Marathon, and said, ‘You’re the guy we’d like to work with,’” Brendan Reilly recalled. Reilly started Boulder Wave athlete management 24 years ago, with mostly Japanese runners. He had no Kenyan clients in 2009. “They’d done their homework. Gilbert saw that I’d helped an Olympic gold medalist and other top runners, and that my client list was small. They were looking for personal attention, more of a partnership.”
It made sense that an unusually equitable, pragmatic husband-wife team sought out an equally unusual manager, more of a family member than an employee. There was an immediate meeting of the minds. “I like to keep it small so I can take a personal approach,” Reilly said. “I’ve had 20 athletes before and I was miserable. My philosophy is, let’s build your career, put some structure in it so you’re an athlete that sponsors will want. Maybe I’m just lazy, but if I enjoy working with these people and we’ve done okay financially; there’s no reason to have a ton of athletes.”
Reilly’s personal attention includes child care. Carlos and Wendy traveled with their mom to this past April’s Boston Marathon, but Koech’s visa wasn’t approved. Reilly took charge of the kids while Kiplagat took charge of the race.
In 2010, Kiplagat turned 30, had 14 years of competition under her belt and four children around the house. To some, that would be the time to retire. Instead, she embarked on a new venture, almost a new career entirely, in the marathon. The 26.2-mile test of endurance, speed, courage and savvy patience turned out to be her true calling.
“It was Gilbert’s idea for her to debut at the 2010 Los Angeles Marathon,” Reilly said. “She won that in 2:25, won a new car, made a ton of money. It was obvious Edna was the real deal, just an incredible marathon talent. It was about then that I had a friendly conversation with Gilbert. I said, ‘I think your wife really has potential. You might want to think about switching over to being her training partner or just her coach so we can put all our energy into Edna’s career.’ This is a Kenyan man, remember, who has a running career of his own. I’m sure it was a humbling experience for Gilbert, but he thought about it and said, ‘Let’s do it.’ He’s the first Kenyan guy I’ve ever met who had enough humility to voluntarily dial back his own career to help his wife’s.”
In the summer of 2010, Team Kiplagat sketched out a plan that culminated with the 2012 Olympics. It worked, with victories at big city marathons, a gold medal at the 2011 World Championships, and a stellar PB of 2:19:50 set in April 2012 at the London Marathon. Unfortunately, she caught a cold just before the Olympic Marathon in August, and finished a disappointing 20th, in 2:27:52.
Running is Kiplagat’s business, and though she feels lucky to enjoy her work, family remained her priority, a fact that helped her brush off the inevitable bad races. She added to the family most recently in 2013, when a neighbor died during childbirth. “That week, my husband said, ‘Let’s support the child,’ so we have been buying her things she needs.”
Kiplagat is certainly one of the wealthiest people in Kenya. She’s won the London Marathon, New York City Marathon, the World Championship marathon twice—all with big prize purses. Her victory at this year’s Boston Marathon netted $150,000, but in addition to individual purses, these marathons are part of the eight-race World Marathon Majors series that awards $500,000 to the top point-winner. In a demonstration of the sad state of doping in the sport, Kiplagat has twice been upgraded to champion, after Liliya Shobukhova (2010/2011) and Rita Jeptoo (2013/2014) failed drug tests. History looks to be repeating itself this year—Kiplagat is a possible beneficiary of the championship 2016/2017 title, as winner Jemima Sumgong presented a doping positive in her A sample. Kiplagat has not yet received the combined $1 million from the two earlier World Marathon Major wins, a fact that frosts Brendan Reilly.
“The IAAF handled this so poorly, to actually go back and allow Shobukhova into the sport without repaying the prize money—it’s one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever seen,” Reilly said.
Though the situation might repeat itself with Sumgong, Kiplagat didn’t seem anxious or upset: “Yes, it’s a lot. I’ll sit down with my husband and plan the projects we are going to do. For now, we are still waiting.”
As much as any top runner, Kiplagat has avoided doping allegations. Whether it’s her decades in the top echelons, the fact that she doesn’t associate with known dopers (Sumgong, for example, was Rita Jeptoo’s training partner), or her steady progression, American marathoner Des Linden said of Kiplagat after her Boston win: “She deserves it. She’s been doing it the right way for years.”
Reilly is as sure his client is clean as any manager based a continent away can be: “What do any of us [managers] know for sure? You try to work with people you like, people you trust and get along with. Edna’s not secretive, she doesn’t get uptight, she’s very open. Hopefully I can read people well enough … And, well, Edna has had enough crumby races—it lends credibility, you know?”
Like other Kenyan stars, Kiplagat invests heavily in the local economy. She and Koech have built a comfortable house and a “good-sized” farm in Iten where they raise sheep, goats, cows, maize, and wheat. They employ people to help them with the children and on the farm, and she has funded local women’s businesses. In 2012, after 11 years of marriage, she splurged on a wedding ceremony. Her good friend and now marathon world record holder Mary Keitany was the maid of honor.
But her day-to-day life remains simple, focused on family and training. “I wake up at 6 a.m. and go for training,” Kiplagat said. “I have someone assisting me in the house; she makes sure the children get up, and prepares breakfast. We take breakfast with the children and they go to school. They are lucky—the bus picks them up at the gate. [Kiplagat had to run a 5k to and from school growing up.] Most of my training is in mid-morning. Then I rest, or sometimes go out for some shopping. Some days there is an afternoon workout or weight training. The children come home around 4 p.m., they take a shower, we take tea, and then we do homework together. Sometimes we take them to a field to play around. We let them watch TV but we have to restrict. We usually go to bed at 9 p.m.”
During our conversation, the kids’ homework was accomplished and the Kiplagat/Koech tribe piled into a very nice SUV. Wife, mother, Christian, Nike athlete, and recent Boston Marathon champ climbed into the driver’s seat with her priorities in order.