Mary Keitany’s Journey: A Life of Long Distance Running
The Past, the Present, & the Future
She wasn’t born an Olympic athlete. No one is. When we exercise, whether at a competitive level or as a hobby, we hope to find joy in our bodies, in reaching our goals, and a sense of accomplishment in overcoming setbacks.
Mary Jepkosgei Keitany holds the world record for the women-only marathon, which she set when she won the 2017 London Marathon with a finishing time of 2:17:01. Her journey has been a rich one, mixed with intense competition, becoming the mother of three children, recovering from injuries, and planning for the future. In this interview she shares her experience and insight into how to integrate running – no matter the level – into your life and experience the same pleasure she does while training on the professional level.
What is your first memory of racing?
My first competitive running memory is from a race in Spain. It was the first time I had ever competed internationally. And I was already 24. By then I had learned how to train and was mature enough to make my own decisions. Soon after that, I took my first career break to have a baby.
You’re a mother and a professional runner. What’s that like?
Being a mother inevitably creates its own challenges. It means I have to organize my training around the needs of my family. But being a mother is also a natural and normal thing to do and it keeps running in perspective. Dealing with the natural weight gain following childbirth is another challenge. It is hard at first. My body changed a lot when I was pregnant and afterward, and I had to work hard to get back into my pre-pregnancy shape. But my children kept me active and I refocused on my next goals, which helped me stay on track.
Can you tell us what shaped you as a runner?
As people, we are all shaped by our environment, upbringing and, of course, our genes. It is probably fair to say that my greatest fortune is that I was born to run. I am Kenyan and Kenyans love to run. My parents gave me the natural qualities and characteristics to be good at it. But all of that counts for nothing unless you have the passion to take advantage of the qualities handed to you at birth. It is also true to say that even if you are not necessarily a natural runner and someone blessed with the qualities shared by Olympic athletes, you can still derive the same pleasures and benefits that a world-class runner gets from pounding the roads, parks, or beaches.
And how did you become a professional runner?
Long before I won my first London Marathon in 2011 I ran just for fun and my mental well-being. I didn’t even train properly until I was in my twenties. I have read many stories about myself in which I am described as a “late bloomer”. That’s true. My parents gave me the heart, lungs and legs to become a great athlete but they always struggled financially. I grew up without electricity and running water. I was not brought up in the same house as my four sisters who lived with our neighbors. My parents couldn’t afford to feed us all. When I was 15, I gave up school, stopped running, and became a live-in maid. It was two more years before I was in a position to resume training. That two-year hiatus was the first of a few career breaks that characterize my career. Taking a rest away from training to devote my time to something else inevitably creates challenges but, at the same time, is responsible for the fact I am still competing at the highest level despite being aged 38.
Like all athletes, I suffer injuries. But what my career breaks have ensured is that I have not suffered from the sort of stress injuries that are often accumulated by runners who train and compete on a continuous annual cycle. It’s important to remember that if you do suffer a setback, whatever it is, go easy on yourself. If you have a major life change or get injured, give yourself time to recover. Putting more pressure on yourself to recover quickly will only make the process take longer. And it’s a good idea to try to develop habits that help you avoid getting hurt in the first place.
What are the challenges of running as you age?
Training is more tiring at first and the older I get the smarter I have to be with my training. These days I do a lot more stretching and mobility exercises as well as regular massages. Avoiding injury in the first place is always better than knowing how to treat them. That is a simple tip which is always worth reminding yourself of. And, at my stage of career, something I am always aware of.
Any advice for other runners?
The best advice I can give to runners is that the greatest rewards are felt within and come from the satisfaction of having trained hard and gotten the best out of yourself. Running is competitive. Sometimes your greatest rival is within you. However fast or slow you may be, there is no greater possible achievement than to have run faster than you’ve ever done before.
Can you share your plans now that the 2020 Summer Olympics have been postponed?
The postponement of the Olympic Games means that I shall be just six months short of my 40th birthday when the marathon in Tokyo takes place. It shall be my last chance to win Olympic Gold and I’m determined to get to the start line in the best shape I can be. There is no doubt that having a great team around me has allowed me to maintain my level of competition. My husband is a former athlete, so he knows all about the highs and lows of training and competing. As well as helping to look after our three children – two of them are my own while we have also adopted our nephew – Charles plays a central role in our ownership and management of a hotel in Eldoret. Though we have had to work really hard to get to where we are, living in Kenya provides daily reminders of just how lucky we are. That’s why, and because so many people around us have to live day-by-day without the luxuries of a comfortable lifestyle, my husband and I have pledged to support our local community. We have helped fund a local school with our race and career earnings and they have been able to develop science labs as well as dormitory accommodation for both students and young, up-and-coming athletes.
Train Like you
Are you inspired by Mary’s story? Check out these other strong women who are making running and bodyweight training part of their lives and their identity. You don’t have to be a professional athlete to have fun working out. Whether you are training for a race or just want to step up your game, you can join Train Like You and track your active minutes in the adidas Training app. Why not start today?