February 12, 2024

When Your Race Is Cut Short

The death of Kelvin Kiptum leaves world athletics in shock.

A Race Cut Short

Like so many recreational runners around the world – not to mention the elites – I felt numb this morning reading of the death of marathon world record holder, Kelvin Kiptum. I still can’t believe it.

We all went onto social media, and read the reports and shared our grief. The tweets on X, the Facebook shares, the sports pages, the online forum LetsRun.

When you’re struggling to get your marathon under three hours, it’s insane to think about the pace required to take another hour off that again. And that’s what Kiptum had been planning to do, with his expected April tilt at sub-two hours on the fast Rotterdam course.

The Kenyan superstar died after crashing his car whilst driving late at night in his home country. His coach died with him. And all of this just five days after his 2023 Chicago marathon time of 2:00:35 was ratified by World Athletics, and announced by none other than that superstar from a previous age, the head of World Athletics, Lord Sebastian Coe himself.

Kiptum was 24. He had run three marathons – won them all and had announced himself as the next big thing, after the GOAT – Eliud Kipchoge. His three marathons are three of the seven fastest times in history.

Both he and Kipchoge were both provisionally chosen for the Kenyan Olympics team for Paris later this year. But alas, that Gold/Silver showdown is not to be.

No doubt there will be a moment’s silence at the start of the race, as the beautiful, gifted and good of the road pay their acknowledgements to someone who was destined to be a superstar. He was cut short of the finish line in life.

Often marathoners feel it is tragic if they pull out of a marathon during the race due to injury or illness or not getting to their goal pace at the right time. But this puts all of that into perspective.

Our Destiny

But of course, even raising the idea of our destiny brings in the sobering truth that there is no way to determine that for ourselves. Whatever we say about us, or whatever anyone else says about us, our destiny – because it’s in the future – is out of our hands.

Kiptum trained for insane distances each week – far more than other conventional athletes. Even more than Kipchoge. The worst that could be said about his 200-250km weeks was that he would burnt out early or get badly injured. He was reaching for the sun, and the heat would melt his Icarus-liked winged feet. He would break before he got old.

We didn’t predict that he would die before he got old.

But in a sense, whatever we think our destiny is in the short term – greatness in sport, or achievement or adventure or pleasure, our destiny is death. Like Kiptum we are all destined to die.

The Bible tells us that it is destined for humans to die once and then face judgement (Hebrews 9:27), the grave takes us all. And it takes us so often by surprise. Which is, itself a surprise, for 100 percent of us are destined to die.

Of course we couch this destiny in all sorts of language and all sorts of emotional bargains.

In the West in particular we all feel we are destined to live to a ripe old age, and then we will die peacefully or in control of the result somehow. The rest of the world knows of no such illusions. And Kenyan as he was, Kiptum would have been surrounded by more death than most of us growing up.

A Sober Reminder

Kiptum was 2023 World Athletics Athlete of the Year

For me, Kiptum’s death is a sober reminder of how fleeting life is. The race can be cut off at any time, but whether or not it ends early, it will indeed end.

I had several conversations with friends this morning about Kiptum’s death. And here’s the thing: God intends the death of those around us, particularly the young, beautiful and gifted, to sober us up to the reality of our own destinies.

One minute Kelvin Kiptum was planning a 250 kilometre week with his coach. The next minute both of them were dead. And that is when the true judgement of all of their earthly endeavours begins. Not by Lord Coe. But by Lord God.

Perhaps this sounds ghoulish, but that is the reality. And, as a friend commented, “I hope he knew Jesus.” Of course, as an athlete from sub-Saharan Africa, there’s a good chance he was religious, and being from Kenya, there’s a good chance he was a believer. But we can never know.

In 2023 Kiptum was jointly crowned World Athlete of the Year. And now just a few months later, he is gone. Deaths such as his fire a shot across our bows. We need to learn from them ourselves. We cannot allow such a moment to pass in the manner of the friends of Ivan Ilyich in Dostoevsky’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. They view their continued existence on the planet, and his demise, as almost something to be comforted by:

Apart from the reflections this death called up in each of them about the transfers and possible changes at work that might result from it, the very fact of the death of a close acquaintance. called up in all those who heard of it, as always, a feeling of joy that it was he who was dead and not!. “You see, he’s dead, and I’m not,” each of them thought or felt. Close acquaintances, Ivan Ilyich’s so-called friends, involuntarily thought as well that it would now be necessary for them to fulfil the very boring obligations of decency and go to the funeral service and to the widow on a visit of condolence.

Yet one day it will be us that is dead, and not others. And on days like today, when the young, beautiful, gifted and good meet an early death, we should not draw comfort from this, or even let it pass us by, but we should reflect on it.

And of course, we should also reflect on the hope for those of us who have, in the words of Hebrews 12, set our hearts, minds and bodies to run the race of the gospel with the endurance Christ gives us. In fact, in my run club, The Big Table Run Club, that’s the key verse printed on our running vests. A great reminder – and indeed a great challenge – when we tick over the hundreds of kilometres required to train for a marathon.

Only in Jesus, is that tolling bell of death, that Hebrews 9 reminds us of, salved by the hope of the following verse:

Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment,  so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him. (Hebrews 9:27-28)

Jesus has run the race ahead of us – the true forerunner who has breasted the tape, achieved the victory over sin and Satan and death – that no amount of youth, beauty, giftedness or internal goodness of our own, could achieve. Let’s run that race set before us. And if we’re not running it at this point in our lives, let’s ask ourselves: “Which race could be anywhere near as important? Which race would Kelvin Kiptum, from his vantage point on the other side of eternity, encourage us to run?”

And pray that by the grace of God our race is not cut short. But pray above all that we will be awarded the crown of righteousness, an award well beyond any Athlete of the Year, when our own personal race ends.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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