Eliud Kipchoge is perhaps the greatest distance runner ever. But he’s determined to make his legacy about saving the Earth’s forests.
On a Tuesday morning, two-time Olympic champion and world record holder Eliud Kipchoge is wearing a full-length suit with a collared shirt and tie, a striking contrast to his normal running clothes. The audience gives him an ovation as he walks to the stage. Like in all his marathons, Kipchoge smiles to cope with the pressure.
At 5-foot-6 and 115 pounds, the greatest distance runner of all time is in unfamiliar terrain as he faces his biggest challenge yet. The stakes are high; he cannot afford to lose.
This is the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference, and 36-year-old Kipchoge is racing against deforestation. He’s here to urge over 100 global leaders — whose eyes are now on him — to urgently increase their pace in stopping and reversing forest loss worldwide. He stumbles on his words at the starting line but quickly finds his rhythm at mile three.
“I won my first world championship in 2003, and this summer, I successfully defended my Olympic medal in the marathon. I’m lucky to say I have a long career, and today, I want to share the secret of my success with you because I believe you can apply it too and it will help you be successful in fighting climate change.”
Throughout his 20-year career, the Kenyan runner has broken many records: He has four Olympic medals, four London marathon titles, one Chicago, one Tokyo, and three Berlin titles — setting the official world record of 2:01:39 at the 2018 Berlin Marathon. But he’s also been aiming to break the record as an environmental champion. Kipchoge has been at the forefront of the efforts dedicated to the conservation and restoration of forests, and for this, he represented his country at the Glasgow climate change talks.
“Until a few years ago, I trained by listening to what my body was telling me and was successful and won almost every marathon I race in. But when I realized I wanted to leave a legacy, I knew I needed to do more.”
At the middle mile, the soft-spoken champion explains how data and innovations have helped him run “times that no human has run before me.”
“… on October 12th, 2019, I became the first human ever to run the marathon in under two hours. Something that was not thought possible until at least the year 2075. We are here today to speak about climate change….”
Kipchoge is referring to his INEOS 1.59 Challenge in Vienna, Austria, where he made history for running the fastest unofficial marathon when he completed the 42.195km distance in a time of 1:59:40: — averaging every 100-meter pace in 17 seconds. He mentions this feat blandly, careful not to sound self-indulgent.
Eliud Kipchoge celebrates by planting trees
Barely a month after becoming the first man in history to run a sub-two-hour marathon, the unfailingly modest Kipchoge had his eyes on another milestone — adopting Kaptagat Forest in the Kenyan highlands. It would take him seven months before he could see the finish line of this challenge.
In June 2020, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry handed him the ‘adoption papers’ for 123 acres of the forest block near his training camp. He planned to rehabilitate the forest with indigenous trees to restore it to its natural state. At the adoption ceremony, Kipchoge urged others to address climate concerns with the same urgency one would when sprinting towards the finish line in a race.
“The speed that we employ when aiming for prizes during competitions is the same speed and urgency we need now to stop further forest loss and reduce our negative impact on this precious natural resource which provides us with clean air.”
Realizing his country was still celebrating with full fanfare his INEOS achievement, which had turned him into a national hero, he partnered with the government to lead the nation in an INEOS 1.9 spin-off: a sub-two-hour tree planting challenge. Kipchoge explained his challenge to Kenyan citizens to KTN Kenya.
“We can celebrate for being in the Guinness Book of World records by being the country which has planted the largest number of trees. We want every Kenyan to spend at least one hour 59 minutes to just plant 60 seedlings, only 60. Kenya has a population of over 51 million people, so this initiative has the potential to see millions of new trees planted,” he told KTN Kenya.
To kickstart the initiative, he launched a sub-two-minute tree planting challenge in August 2020 at his 123 acres in Kaptagat Forest. In a well-coordinated activity led by the Kenya Forest Service (KFS), a referee blew the whistle to mark the kickoff, and the whistle went full time at exactly 120 seconds, marking the end of the marathon. The nine participants, including Kipchoge, had to properly plant as many seedlings as possible under the KFS tree planting quality assurance protocols. The highest number of trees planted by an individual in under two minutes was 17.
“I am happy 1:59 has inspired forest conservation. Sports and environmental conservation are joined at the hip, you cannot run in a polluted environment. This challenge, therefore, should inspire us in life to make a difference. Even one second or those two minutes are critical.”
Six weeks later, the Olympian would leave for the London Marathon to pursue his fifth title. It was in the chilly rainy streets of St James Park that the king was dethroned. He suffered his first loss in seven years, which ended his winning streak of 10 marathons in a row between 2014-2019. Atrocious weather caused a blockage in his right ear, which caused a cramp in his hip and resulted in an eighth-place finish in a time of 2:06:49.
Only 20 days after his London loss, ‘the philosopher’ was clocking more mileage on the hard-packed red dirt roads of Machakos, Kenya, to a marathon after his own heart — tree planting. He spearheaded a project in which over 10,000 residents benefited from free avocado seedlings.
“I handed over avocado trees to women groups here, which is a good initiative because avocado takes care of the environment and also earns you a living. Planting trees has a big relationship with sports because as sportsmen, we need to train in a very good environment, and the only way to get that is by planting trees.”
He further challenged county governments to set aside special allocations for tree planting in their annual budgets, challenging Kenyans to develop a culture of planting trees during celebrations.
“I urge everybody to plant trees on every occasion; during graduations, birthdays…any occasion. If we do that, together we can make Kenya green.”
And then he was back in his training camp at Kaptagat, where he’s trained since 2002.
Preparing for marathons and forests
For six days a week, Kipchoge stays at the boarding school-like camp with around 30 other athletes. Founded and overseen by his coach, Patrick Sang, it’s a basic facility with dormitories, a kitchen, a dining area, and a TV room. His wife and three children live about 40 minutes away, but he only sees them from Saturday afternoon until Monday morning.
“I think being in the camp is something good for us. We are away from our families, so that brings one focus. It is only running. We value running like our office. It’s something we have to take care of, work for, have a passion for, and respect for.”
At the camp, he runs repeat tracks of between 200-220 kilometers a week, along with strength and core workouts, speed training, and physio.
With this rigorous training, self-discipline, and consistency, he was ready for the summer Tokyo Olympics. On Aug. 7, 2021, the calm Kipchoge left his competitors in the dust at the 31st kilometer and stormed to gold at a time of 2:08:38. With no other runner within view, his winning margin of 1:20 was the widest in an Olympic marathon since 1972. He also became the third man in history to win back-to-back Olympic titles.
“I think I have fulfilled the legacy by winning the marathon for the second time, back-to-back. I hope now to help inspire the next generation.”
In what was now becoming his norm, as soon as he returned home with all the media attention still on him, he attended the virtual International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies organized by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). During his presentation, he repeated the simple yet powerful message.
“Plant a tree on your special day, and in two years, we will be breathing better air. This is not rocket science. We must protect that which provides us with clean air, clean water and is a perfect training ground for our athletes.”
He urged fellow athletes to advocate for climate action and clean air, attend conferences, and listen to stakeholders because, as influencers, they could use social media to spread awareness.
But in this race to save forests, the marathoner added a sprint to cover more distance, quickly.
On Sep. 9, 2021, just four weeks after his Olympic win, he launched the Eliud Kipchoge Foundation, to be primarily focused on education and the environment.
“I hope to contribute and grow the movement in education and environmental protection through my Foundation, to reach the people in the world with my voice.”
Through the foundation, Kipchoge plans to adopt forests in all the 47 Kenyan counties. And for the next five years, through his foundation, he will actively provide the resources for implementing the restoration of forests in all Kenyan counties as well as throughout Africa.
He asked the world to boost his conservation efforts in a simple yet effective way.
“Can we convert our birthdays and plant a tree? Can we convert our birthdays to walking for the noble cause of climate change? Convert our anniversaries and plant trees or walk? If you are celebrating 60 years, plant 60 trees. If your kid is 2 years old, run for 2km and plant two trees to commemorate your day. We’ll make this world a green world in only one year.”
And to the athletic fraternity:
“I would (like to) rally my fellow athletes, and those who manage the sport, to organize races where people can run for noble conservation causes. I would also urge governments to encourage their citizens to walk and run around and adopt bare lands and turn them into forests.”
After rallying individuals and fellow athletes with practical climate conservation solutions, he would, a few weeks later, address global leaders in Glasgow on the same.
What’s next for Eliud Kipchoge?
We are back at the Cop26 conference, and Kipchoge is at the finish line of his speech. Just like technology and innovation have helped him become better, he presses the Western countries to share their innovations with the rest of the world to help them deal with the climate crisis.
“I urge all of us to bring our worlds together whereby we can combine our unique skills of staying connected to our feelings, added by the strength of data and technological innovation… The planet is in our dear hands; we have the will, the knowledge, the expertise, and the resources to change it… The best time to act on climate change is today. Let us ACT!”
And with that, Kipchoge finishes, to a loud, long ovation.
However, in this race, the marathon legend is not waiting for anyone to toe the starting line with him. We can join him on the roads, but he’s not stopping to wait. Environmental conservation is personal and crucial to him. As he told Olympics.com ahead of Earth Day in April 2022:
“As an athlete, I train every single day, meaning I need to breathe clean air daily. This means that I need to conserve the environment and focus on it every day. Clean air in combination with performance in sports has made me think about conservation a lot more.”
Even so, he’s also thinking about his remaining two marathons. He has won four out of six World Marathon Majors and said that he would like to become the first person to win them all. With that, we expect to see him soon lining up at the starting line in Hopkinton at the Boston Marathon and lapping down 5th Avenue along Central Park at the New York City Marathon.
No matter the outcome of these races, and the many more he will still run, one thing’s for sure: long after his reign on the tracks, Kipchoge will continue to break records as an environmental champion.
Because for him:
“Every day is earth day for me. It is our only home and our only business — and only we can save it.”