NAIROBI, Kenya, March 11- Petite, jovial and possessing an infectious smile, Mary Jepkosgei Keitany is not your typical Kenyan female athlete.
Her immense talent has seen her carve a niche in the top echelons of distance running and that is imperiously matched with a beaming outgoing personality that makes the world half marathon record holder and London Marathon champion a pleasure to intermingle with.
Despite the fact that she has raced to a fortune that can afford her a jet set lifestyle complete with the trappings of high end social grandeur, Keitany and husband Charles Koech, a solid marathoner himself, lead a humble existence in their farm in Iten.
“Welcome and feel at home,” she extended her greetings when a group of international journalists who paid her a call under the IAAF Day in Life programme invaded her home at the crack of dawn on a Sunday morning.
“Today, I was supposed to be in a function at church and welcome visitors later but now that you are here, we can spend time together,” she added cheerfully, dispelling any lingering fears that the visit had upset her set activities.
After a brief work-out, if you call running steadily for 45 minutes brief, Keitany, who went through her paces in the full glare of video and still cameras on the day unperturbed ushered the crowd home for a cup of tea as son Jared Kipchumba and his cousin Hosea whom the couple have adopted joined the fray.
Here was a woman so revered on the distance running circuit heartily serving tea to her guest in a table room where a life size photo of the moment she breast the tape in London in a barnstorming 2:19:19 staring down as a forceful reminder of her internationally acclaimed mettle- truly heart warming.
The family did not mind as the camera persons clicked or shot away the various trophies, medals and mementos on display at the house which lay testament to the couple’s achievements, another rarity among Kenyan athletes who do not cherish invasions to their private lives.
With the camaraderie and tea dispensed with, the London champion who served notice of intent on February 17 by effortlessly retaining her Ras Al Khaimah half marathon title in 66:49 after strong winds affected another world record charge settled to field interviews.
Interest in Keitany soared last year when she broke the world half marathon record in February before earning a first Marathon Majors victory in April.
Ahead of the Olympics summer, the runner who is listed in her country’s marathon probables squad for London is keen on replicating or bettering the achievements she posted in her annus mirabilis.
“I will not change the programme I was using last year and if I change it, it will not be much. After London Marathon if selected for the Olympics, the programme could change depending on whether Athletics Kenya give us a coach.
“What I want at the Olympics is go there and work extra hard and come with a medal for Kenya. I know we are many, even the Ethiopians are there and it will be a tough race but we have to work hard. It would be great if I get a medal,” the runner who struck gold at the 2009 World Half in Birmingham after winning silver at the Udine edition on her Team Kenya debut in 2007.
Having made a highly publicised full marathon debut at the New York race in November 2010 where she finished a credible third, Keitany returned to the Big Apple as a runaway favourite last year and went ahead to break out so fast before fizzling at the latter stages.
Ethiopian pair, Firehiwot Dado and Bizunesh Daba closed in on her before forcing the London champion to accept bronze in one of the most dramatic finishes to a marathon since at one time in the race, Keitany had an imposing five minute lead.
“I thought I could win (by going out too fast) but in the end, I lost it. In New York there are no pace makers and I thought I could have made it by going alone and what I learned is that the course is not flat so that cannot happen.
“In London, I had a pace maker until halfway but in New York, I thought my colleague (Liliya) Shobhukova would have run with me. Next time, I shall run with my colleagues until 30km before gauging whether to break,” she stated.
Keitany believes the recent explosion of Kenyan female marathon talent in a country where double world and Olympics silver medallist Catherine Ndereba held fort for most of the last decade is down to the extra effort they have placed in attaining excellence.
“We have understood that in the past, we used to have good female runners and we are motivated by them. We have seen if we train extra and compete in races like half marathon or 10K and 5K races can help a lot and in future, we can tackle the world record.
“You have to put the Fartlek in 10K and 5K to the endurance training for speed and that is why less distance events help a lot in marathon running. That is why we go to these races before a big marathon,” she explains.
In 2008, Keitany took a break and welcomed son Jared and like many of her compeers who have enjoyed a career upshot after child birth, Keitany credits her son with providing the catalyst that saw her re-launch her career with venom.
“When you get a baby, it gives you morale because when training, you know you are training for the future of the baby, to give him a good life like schooling well. It makes you work extra hard and also knowing that there is someone watching you on television.
“When you lose, the family loses as well,” she assessed.
Keitany represents a pillar of the latter day generation of successful Kenyan female athletes backed by a spouse willing to take a back seat and work towards ensuring his partner’s achievement.
Koech put his professional running career on hold to assist in shaping Keitany’s ascent to the top, aid in caring for the family as well as business interests.
“He plays many roles and it’s nice for him to be there for me. He controls the family when I travel abroad and my work is to concentrate on working for running.
“Sometimes back, (women) could run and get nowhere but with a husband who understands running and training together has made things easier.”
On her London title defence, Keitany expects a spirited charge for her title with her compatriots, world champion Edna Kiplagat, Chicago winner, Florence Kiplagat, Daegu silver medallist, Priscah Jeptoo and latest star, Lucy Kabuu (2:19:34, Dubai) joining her in chasing the three available tickets to the Summer Games.
“It will tough and after pacemakers have stopped, it will be a battle among us. They will be all looking out for me and with everyone in good shape, it will not be easy. With the competition there, maybe we can run even 2:18:30 or below.”
Besides competing and raising a family, the couple has a number of business interests tied to farming and real estate in addition to philanthropic work among their community.
“We are assisting young athletes of tomorrow and showing them the way to the future,” Keitany added.
Just like last year, Keitany served notice of intent when running against strong winds; she retained her Ras Al Khaimah Half Marathon title in 66:49 that was well outside of her world record of 65:50 but still good enough to beat the second placed Georgina Rono by over two minutes on February 17.
– Courtesy: IAAF Focus on Athletes Project/Pictures: Getty Images