A Hotbed of Distance Running Talent Emerges in Uganda

It is here that Ugandan running is now thriving, though the region’s talent took time to develop. While Kenya enjoyed relative stability in the decades after independence, Uganda was at war for much of the 1970s and 1980s. Lawlessness pervaded the Mount Elgon region until the turn of the century: Bandits from neighboring tribes would sweep in at night and conduct raids on cattle, often killing locals in the process.

The area was also slow to modernize. Until the 1990s, the ancestors of many current athletes, including Cheptegei, Kiplimo and Chemutai, lived inside the forests of Elgon’s upper belt, part of a small group of Sabaot that subsisted on milk, honey and meat from antelope and buffalo they hunted. Here, 9,000 feet up, there were no roads or schools, and no pipeline into competitive athletics. But according to Moses Kiptala, an elder who grew up in this community, endurance was of great value: The group’s method of persistence hunting involved chasing animals for hours until they overheated.

Kiplimo, who comes from a family of runners and had planned to contest the 5,000 and 10,000 meters in Budapest before being sidelined by an injured hamstring, is of particularly distinguished stock. Kiptala recalls Kiplimo’s grandfather being such a prolific hunter that the community called him Simba, or Lion.

Much had changed by the time today’s crop of stars were born: In 1983, Uganda’s government began resettling the group, known as the Mosopisiek, downslope from the forest to make way for a national park. Most are now small-scale farmers. The resettlement process, Kiptala said, was traumatic, but it also helped unlock running talent. Through school, children could access competitions, and by the early 2000s, athletes from the Elgon region were beginning to appear in World Championship and Olympic finals.

Uganda’s first champion of this period was a runner from the country’s north, Dorcus Inzikuru, who won the 3000-meter steeplechase at the 2005 World Championships in Helsinki. Elgon’s watershed moment came seven years later, when the Kapchorwa native Stephen Kiprotich notched an upset win in the 2012 London Olympic marathon — the country’s first Olympic gold since 1972. He doubled down with a marathon title the following year in Moscow.

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