Remembering Kelvin Kiptum: An Interview with Carey Pinkowski
When Carey Pinkowski got news that Kelvin Kiptum had been in a car accident, he didn’t let himself fear the worst. “Maybe a bruised rib,” he thought. Just four months earlier, Kiptum had leapt into Pinkowski’s arms after breaking the marathon world record at the Bank of America Chicago Marathon where Pinkowski serves as the Executive Race Director. That week, the world record had just been ratified by World Athletics. Still left to wonder what had just happened some eight thousand miles away in Kenya, Pinkowski thought, “Maybe he has to take some time off.” Moments later, Pinkowski’s phone rang. It was a friend from Nike. Kiptum and his coach Gervais Hakizamana were dead. *** Pinkowski first saw Kelvin Kiptum at the 2023 TCS London Marathon. There, the 23-year-old Kenyan showed the world that his 2:01:53 debut marathon performance in Valencia was no fluke. That day, he would win easily in 2:01:25, the second fastest time in history. Then, the question wasn’t If Kiptum was going to break the world record, but where he was going to break it. There for work and to watch his daughter run, Pinkowski saw Kiptum run by him at mile 15. “I turned to my wife and I go, ‘I gotta get this guy. I've never seen anything like it before,”’ Pinkowski recalls. “He kind of took my breath away. I was 10 yards from him. I was like, ‘holy cow, this guy is special.’” Although known for its fast course, welcoming to pacers and generally favorable weather conditions, Chicago had not seen a men’s world record since Khalid Khannouchi ran 2:05:42 in 1999 (the women’s world record was set in Chicago by Brigid Kosgei in 2019, but has since been broken). The last eight world records, accounting for nearly four minutes of progression, had fallen in Berlin, another famously fast race held just one week before Chicago. Pinkowski knew that was his fiercest competitor to host a new men’s record. He relied on his long-time friendship with Kiptum’s manager, Marc Cortsjens, to recruit Kiptum to come to the United States. “I think he was keenly aware of the course and the history and the tradition here. And he wanted to be part of that,” said Pinkowski. A Kenyan man had won Chicago 18 times prior to 2023 - legends like Robert Cheruiyot, Moses Mosop and Eliud Kipchoge. “There was no ‘maybe we will talk to Berlin.’ No, Chicago is where we want to go.” If you were expecting a bidding war over appearance fees, prize money and incentives, Pinkowski says that wasn’t the case, casually referring to securing the most exciting young athlete in a generation as “easy” to work with. While Pinkowski didn’t get into specifics on elite budgets, he insisted that the top priority for his team and for Kiptum was coming to Chicago to run fast. “And then, everything kind of falls in place,” he said. The hard work was preparing the team at Chicago Event Management and the City of Chicago to potentially host a historic performance. Although he was just 26-seconds shy of Eliud Kipchoge’s 2:01:09 after his London victory, Pinkowski says Kiptum and his team never engaged in any conversations about breaking the world record in Chicago. Kiptum, he said, simply wanted to run fast. Even at the pre-race press conference, Kiptum would only tell reporters he wanted to break the course record of 2:03:45; simple for a man who’d never run over 2:02. But Pinkowski, who’s spent more than three decades at the helm of Chicago, knew it wasn’t simply a possibility. It was the most likely outcome. He started spreading the word. In a meeting with city services, Pinkowski told police officers, emergency personnel, sanitation employees and even the Mayor’s team that Kiptum was the best he’d ever seen and he was going to break the World Record in Chicago on October 8, 2023. In the marathon, the biggest factor that can make or break an athlete’s day is the weather, obviously beyond anyone’s control. Pinkowski was more than confident in his course. It’s responsible for three of the top five fastest women’s marathon times in history and has made Khannouchi, Steve Jones, Catherine Ndbera, Paula Radcliffe and Kosgei world record holders. In fact, in the past 40 years Chicago is one of only four marathons where world records have been set by men or women. Along with Berlin, the others are London and Rotterdam. Chicago is also where Emily Sisson set the American record in 2022. Pinkowski points out that Chicago is an especially athlete-friendly event. Elite athlete manager Tracey Wilson is dialed in on athletes’ dietary needs, sleep schedules and race-week training requirements. She and her team focus on ensuring the last two days put as few outside pressures on the athletes as possible. That’s part of why the athlete hotel, hospitality suite and press conferences are all in the same hotel, just steps away from the start line. “It's about athletic competition first and foremost,” said Pinkowski. “These athletes are coming to Chicago to run a marathon. If they make history, it far exceeds anything you can create on social media or whatever. Not that we still don't continue to do those, those are excellent, excellent tools to get our messaging out for our sponsors or information to our participants. But at the core of what we do is recognizing that there's a lot invested in this and that we need to make sure that these guys, men and women, these individuals are in the right place.” The Chicago team also assembled an international athlete field that would give Kiptum a chance of having people to run with. They included defending Chicago champion Benson Kipruto, Olympic and World Bronze Medalist Bashi Abdi and most notably, Daniel Mateiko, Kiptum’s rabbit in London through 30K who was now making his own marathon debut. Additionally, Wilson and Pinkowski worked with Kiptum’s team to employ a team of four pacers in case Kiptum’s pace was too quick for his competition. Pinkowski’s bold prediction to the city served a mission critical purpose. He made the same statement to volunteers and course staff. An errant vehicle, a misplaced cone, an unprepared water stop could all cost Kiptum precious seconds and a world record for not only Kiptum, but for the city. The result was a well-oiled machine. “It was probably one of the best organized events of all the years that we've done it,” Pinkowski said. Any concerns about the weather conditions evaporated when Pinkowski stepped outside on race morning. He had been getting hourly updates from the team’s meteorologist. “They just kept getting better and better and better. Sometimes they get worse and worse and worse, but they just kept getting better,” he said. It was a dry, cloudy 46 degrees with no wind when the gun went off. “Today’s the day,” Pinkowski thought. Kiptum made it clear he was prepared to make history in the early miles of the race. He ran his first 5K in 14:23 and by 10K, had dropped everyone except Mateiko and his pacers. The pair reached the half marathon behind world-record pace, but Kiptum lived up to his reputation of finishing fast. As he made the final turn onto Columbus Drive, Kiptum began to sprint, pumping up the already roaring crowd. By now, everyone has the finishing time memorized. 2:00:35. 34 seconds faster than Kipchoge’s record. Unable to contain his excitement, Pinkowski ran into the finish chute where Kiptum lept into his arms, an image caught by cameras from around the world. [caption id="attachment_21931" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Chicago Marathon 2023. Photo by Kevin Morris.[/caption] *** After the celebration in Chicago, Pinkowski never saw Kiptum again. He had planned to travel to watch him in Rotterdam this April, where Kiptum had announced he was trying to become the first person to break the two-hour barrier in a sanctioned race. Less than a month after Kiptum’s tragic death, Pinkowski and the city have barely had time to process his historic race let alone his unexpected passing. At the time of this interview, he had just returned from the Tokyo Marathon where he said dozens of Americans came up to him to offer condolences and share their disbelief. In Chicago, everyone from race spectators to Mayor Brandon Johnson have reached out to Pinkowski and the CEM team. “Kelvin put Chicago front and center in that we can break world records here. The residual effect of that kind of reenergized our team. It reenergized me,” Pinkowski said. “I mean, he really connected us, because we were all part of building this thing. It’s still resonating.” *** Author and interviewer Jay Holder is the Executive Director of Running USA. Photo credits: Kevin Morris.
Participant Equity at the HAP Crim Festival of Races
Staff and participants of the iconic race in Flint, Michigan share their personal stories in our four video, article series FLINT, MICHIGAN - After 46 years of its existence, the HAP Crim Festival of Races weekend has not only become a local holiday in Flint, Michigan, but it is a celebration of Flint’s perseverance. “The Crim,” as it’s known, is one of the biggest events of the summer in Flint, Michigan. Ten thousand runners, walkers, wheelchair racers and other athletes come out for the 10-mile, 5 mile, 5K, one mile and kids’ races during this weekend in late August. Flint, Michigan is known internationally for its contaminated water crisis. They’ve had a boil filtered water advisory that started in 2014 and was not lifted until February of this year. One of the positive side effects of the water crisis was new health and wellness programs - initiatives that had not been a focus in Flint previously.  The Crim was an obvious partner. In addition to producing the August race weekend, The HAP Crim Fitness Foundation works year-round to provide programs for adults, seniors and children that include access to nutrition, mindfulness training and exercise. “It's been nine years since the water crisis began, and there’s still that fear,” said Liz Jones, HAP Crim Associate Director of Races and Training. As an example, she recently had a sixth grader in one of her programs ask her what would happen to him if he were to take 20 showers. “I was confused by that at first. Then I realized the problem: he's scared about being in the water and what damage the water could do to him. That's still a very relevant fear for a lot of people here in Flint,” Jones explained. “This is an already underserved population and now they are recovering from a pandemic on top of the lingering water crisis issues.” (Watch Liz Jones' video.) “Overcoming barriers to participation has been a focus of the Crim staff for some time, but it has become a heightened priority in the last few years,” says Lauren Holaly-Zembo, HAP Crim Fitness Foundation CEO. “As a race, we're telling people to run or walk or be active, but we know if they don't have the place or the means to do that, they're not going to. So we have to really look at addressing all of that in what we do,” Holaly-Zembo said. (Watch a video with Lauren Holaly-Zembo.) “The reality that the founding of this race that was based on inclusion and it started to raise money for Special Olympics and athletes with special needs. And we've continued to do that throughout our history,” Holaly-Zembo said. The Crim was founded by longtime Michigan politician Bobby D. Crim, who served in the Michigan House of Representatives in the 1970’s and 80’s. He ran his last 10-mile race, his 45th straight, at the 2021 event. "The community is the Crim, the Crim is the community," Crim said in a 2016 interview. "Almost everything from education to fitness ..goes through the Crim. We were a race, but now we're much more than a race.” Today, that vision has expanded to include runners and walkers who may never have been able to participate in the past. Running USA recently had the chance to speak with several runners who have been trailblazers in the Crim’s inclusivity efforts. Here are their stories. Father Time: A wrestler and a walker Father Time is his wrestling name. Yes, you heard that right. His birth certificate, however, says Leo Napier. Due to his vision impairment, he does not have a driver’s license, but that doesn’t hold him back from much else. “The Father Time character has inspired a lot of people. When I was 60, that's when I started professional wrestling, I'll be 71 years old this year.” Napier told us. The story of Father Time’s wrestling career is documented in a powerful long form story from BELT Magazine by writer Scott Atkinson. An especially moving paragraph is this one: “He’d spent his whole life trying to wrestle, but things continually got in the way. Things like cancer in his digestive system when he was still in his twenties and was trying to make contacts with wrestling organizations. About ten years later he tried again but was rear-ended while driving and hurt his back and neck. He was a father then, and life was simply busier. Around age 50, he started thinking about it again, and he had a stroke. And then another. And a third. He’d been a power lifter his entire life and was still bench-pressing more than 350 pounds at the time, but after each stroke he felt weaker and weaker. After his third stroke he heard the doctor say to his wife, ‘I can see that he was once a strong man.’” Father Time recalls his daughter running the Crim a few years ago, and feeling like it was “a little bit of a strange thing to do.” Stranger than beginning a pro wrestling career at 60? Probably not. Now vice president of the Flint/Genesee chapter of the National Federation of the Blind, he was recruited by his friend Sheila Fulmore to join the walking team this year. “We look at it as we can overcome any obstacle that's put in our way. All we have to do is just have the fortitude and the grit to do it. When (sighted people) see that we can do this, too, it changes a lot of minds and a lot of hearts,” Napier said. (Watch the video to hear more of Father Time’s story.) Access for Deaf Runners and Walkers Kid Black Fedio is a Deaf advocate, lifelong teacher of American Sign Language and for the past six years, a run/walk group leader for the Crim. She was looking for a winter activity to keep active and ended up expanding the deaf community’s access to Flint’s largest running event. “We ended up having more than 30 participants our very first year. This summer, we already have more than we had last year. It's a huge thing. People love it. I love it. It's great to all be included,” she said. Feedback she received from last year’s Deaf participants was this: “They felt that they were not brushed aside. They told me that if you provide the access for us, we will show up.” The most important part of true accessibility, Fedio explained, is authentic inclusion. It’s also vital to for events to consider expanding their signage pre-event, on course and post-event, so that those with hearing loss are able to successfully navigate the course and venue. If possible, consider bringing in an ASL interpreter for any main stage announcements or speeches made at the event. For training inclusivity, Fedio recommends being proactive in bringing on group leaders who can relate to the runners and walkers. “If you let a Deaf person lead, it is going to be more successful. I would try to recruit a Deaf adult that is familiar with this, or a pair, a Deaf adult and a hearing person, and have them lead the group. And then it will fly.” (Watch the video to hear more of Kid Fedio’s story.) There’s No Stopping Sheila Fulmore Sheila Fulmore is the President of the Flint/Genesee chapter of the National Federation of the Blind (NAFB). When she first participated in the Crim 5K last year, she surprised even herself. “When we got to the middle, I was like, ‘Oh, I can't do this.’ And I just wanted to stop.” She’d been told to just put one foot in front of the other until she reached the finish, but her body was tired. Encouragement from a stranger on the course helped. “This gentleman came up behind me and said, we are almost there. Let’s go. I just wanted to him to get me a ride to the finish line. But he walked with me a bit and got me going. It was going through my head that I really don’t give up.” So she didn’t. “I finished it. And that inspired me to go, you know what, they have a training program, we should get in that program.” She is now a leader of the Crim’s visually impaired runner/walker group, with 12 members of the NAFB chapter participating this August and the hope that many more will join. Her advice to this year’s first-time participants? “Just remember that you want to finish. Don’t get hung up on your time. I don't want that to be a factor. I want you to have fun. I want you to socialize, I want you to get out and I want you to just walk.” (Watch the video to hear more of Sheila’s story.) The 46th HAP Crim Festival of Races will take place Friday and Saturday, August 25 and 26. Learn more at ** Share your event stories with us: Running USA encourages event and vendor members to share their stories of success with us. Email Leah Etling, director of marketing and communications, to learn more.