From Shoeless Prodigy to World-Class Athlete – A Mary Keitany Story
From Shoeless Prodigy to World-Class Athlete – A Mary Keitany Story
Following her retirement in September, Kenya’s Mary Keitany, the world marathon record holder in a women’s-only event, voluntarily agreed to give some of her racing gear to the World Athletics Heritage Collection (WAHC). From shoeless prodigy to world-class athlete – a Mary Keitany story.
Keitany’s singlet, shorts, and shoes from her fourth and last New York City Marathon triumph in 2018 have been on exhibit in the 3D virtual Museum of World Athletics from the beginning of December (MOWA).
We’re thrilled to honor her generosity by reminiscing about one of the all-time greats of road running.
‘What happens if I don’t do this?’
There are several well-known and famous athletes who hail from Baringo County, a province directly to the east of Eldoret, the main point for Kenyan running, but Keitany’s modest origins made it initially doubtful that she would join them.
She detailed her difficult life in a lengthy interview with The New York Times in 2019 – the details of which are only detailed here – and claimed growing up in a home without electricity or other basic necessities, as well as going without shoes for much of her childhood.
Her childhood chores included trekking several kilometers to a neighboring river to bring pails of water home for cooking and cleaning.
Keitany’s parents, both struggling subsistence farmers, couldn’t afford even the most basic school fees for her to continue her education beyond her mid-teens, so she left to work as a live-in maid nearly 20 kilometers away, caring for three infants and sometimes not seeing her family for months at a time to help support her parents and five siblings.
“It wasn’t an easy job,” Keitany admitted. “However, I was receiving funds to send to my parents.” “What if I don’t do this?” I was thinking. From shoeless prodigy to world-class athlete – a Mary Keitany story.
Out in the open, hidden talent
When a relative was able to aid financially, Keitany returned to school after two years and began attending the National Hidden Talents Academy near Nairobi, a community-based secondary school that mostly assists orphaned and underprivileged children.
The school placed a major focus on physical education, which it still does today, and it has produced a number of Kenyan internationals in a range of sports. Prior to the forced two-year layoff, Keitany’s precocious aptitude as a runner had been evident since she was in her early teens.
Keitany was discovered in local races after graduating from high school in her early twenties, and with the help of Kenyan international runner Lenah Cheruiyot, who finished seventh in the 2002 World Athletics Half Marathon Championships, she took a chance and became a full-time runner in the early part of 2006.
Keitany made her first overseas trip after eight months of hard training and sharing a cramped one-bedroom house with three other runners. She caused a minor sensation by winning the relatively low-key Sevilla-Los Palacios Half Marathon in southern Spain by more than two minutes in 1:09:06, a course record that still stands today ahead of the 2021 edition on December 19th.
The phrase “unknown Kenyan” is often used to mask a lack of research or information, but it was an apt one in this case, and it brought Keitany to the attention of both athletics fans and race producers alike, amid rumors that the course was short due to Keitany’s super-quick time on the circuit.
In the first nine months of 2007, Keitany proved that her initial international race was no fluke, winning five more half marathons in six races in Portugal, Spain, and France, while also lowering her personal best to 1:08:36.
In Udine, Keitany wins silver.
This run of success earned her a spot on the Kenyan team at the 2007 World Athletics Half Marathon Championships in Udine, Italy – an honor she later admitted was among her wildest dreams, despite her ambition to be a top-flight runner only a year before – and she proved her worth by finishing second behind Lornah Kiplagat of the Netherlands and winning a life-changing $15,000.
To tell the whole story of Keitany’s outstanding competitive running career over the next 12 years, from her first race to her final race, the 2019 New York City Marathon, would require a book and could not be done justice in just a few hundred words.
However, it was fitting that her running career conclude in the Big Apple at arguably the world’s most famous classic distance race, as it is with this event that she is most closely identified.
After finishing third in her marathon debut in New York in 2010 – following her win at the 2009 World Athletics Half Marathon Championships in 1:06:36, which was the second-fastest time ever on a record-legal course and an African record at the time – Keitany went on to win the New York City Marathon three times in a row between 2014 and 2016, and then again in 2018.
She is still the only woman, aside from the outstanding Grete Waitz, who has won in New York more than three times.
Keitany was also a standout performer at the London Marathon. Her first victory in the British capital was in 2011, followed by victories in 2012 and 2017.
Runs in London and RAK set new records.
With a time of 2:17:01 set when she completed her hat-trick of London victories four years ago, she still holds the women’s-only marathon world record.
Her achievement of a world half-marathon record of 1:05:50 at the 2011 RAK Half Marathon was another highlight of her successful career.
The only blemish on Keitany’s competitive resume is that she has never made it to the top of an Olympic podium.
She began the London 2012 Olympic Games arguably as the favorite, having returned to the city with a world-leading 2:18:37 from the London Marathon four months prior, albeit on a different course. She was part of a leading quartet of runners at 40 kilometers, but she was the unlucky member of the group to miss out on the medal fight in the final two kilometers, finishing fourth.
Keitany was nominated as a non-traveling reserve for Kenya’s Olympic team in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, but she had her sights set on competing for a spot on the Tokyo team before the pandemic and a cruelly timed back injury intervened.
In September of this year, with her 40th birthday approaching on January 18, 2022, Keitany decided to call it a day on her illustrious career and announced her retirement in a valedictory press statement.
“After a fantastic 2019, in which I had several good achievements, including second place in New York, I was hopeful that, even though I am in my late 30s, I may still be extremely competitive internationally for several more years,” she said.
“However, I’m sorry to announce that a back problem I suffered in late 2019 forced me to make the decision to retire.” Last year, due to pandemic-related travel restrictions, I couldn’t get the treatment I needed in Europe, and every time I thought I’d gotten over the injury and started training hard, it became a problem again.”
Keitany will sadly no longer be seen on the starting line of a major marathon, but she leaves behind a slew of remarkable performances that have cemented her place in the pantheon of road running legends.