Benson Kipruto’s unlikely journey to Boston Marathon champion
By Sarah Gearhart
Feet lightly clap on an empty road just after sunrise on a Sunday, 15 days out from the 126th Boston Marathon. Benson Kipruto, a Kenyan runner, is pounding out miles in the small Kenyan town of Mosoriot, just past the rusty blue arch at the border of Nandi County that is known as the Source of Champions.
His mouth is slightly agape and sweat streaks down his sharp cheekbones, salty remnants of his effort. The 5-foot-7, 125-pound long-distance runner is silent as he stares ahead for 18 miles, chasing a vision. Today, Kipruto will attempt a rare feat — to win his second consecutive Boston Marathon title in what is considered to be the fastest field in the race’s history. Only 10 men have won Boston back-to-back, and there has not been a repeat champion since Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot of Kenya in 2008.
Kipruto, 31, will line up next to Geoffrey Kamworor of Kenya, a two-time New York City Marathon champion, Birhanu Legese of Ethiopia, the third-fastest marathoner in history and two-time Boston Marathon winner Lelisa Desisa, also of Ethiopia.
No one is more surprised than Kipruto.
In the October 2021 race, Kipruto broke away from the lead pack at mile 23 and ran uncontested, crossing the finish line 46 seconds ahead of Lemi Berhanu of Ethiopia to win the storied race.
“Maybe this could be my day,” Kipruto remembered thinking. He was only hoping to do better than his 10th place finish at his Boston debut in 2019. Maybe he could find himself on the podium, he thought. To actually win was an abrupt change of pace for an athlete who once didn’t believe he could make a career out of running.
As a member of the Nandi, a subtribe of the Kalenjin, Kipruto wasn’t confident he could come within range of the legends before him, like Ibrahim Hussein, the first Kenyan to win the Boston Marathon in 1988 and twice more in 1991 and 1992. Eliud Kipchoge, the marathon world-record holder and two-time Olympic gold medalist, also hails from Nandi.
Kipruto grew up in Tolilet, a remote village in the North Rift of Kenya, where life was often spent on a small farm cultivating corn and beans that his family relied on to eat and sell. Kipruto was 1 when his father died. At times, his mother struggled to feed Kipruto and his four siblings.
Sometimes Kipruto would go to school for only half the week because that was all his mother could pay for. When he could attend, the 8-year-old would walk as far as 10 miles a day, fueled by a lunch of githeri, a mixture of corn and beans.
He spent evenings working on the farm with his brothers and sisters, and hauling two 10-liter jugs of water scooped from a river a half-mile away to boil for drinking and cooking.
When Kipruto was 16, his science teacher, who doubled as a gym teacher, encouraged him to try running cross-country. Kipruto joined the team and proved to be a decent — but not necessarily a standout — runner.
Kipruto wanted a career in sports journalism, not competitive running, but he couldn’t afford to continue his education. So he worked on the farm and opened a small kiosk where he sold sugar, fresh milk and bars of soap, along with the vegetables he grew. Some months Kipruto lived on a profit of 5,000 shillings a month (about $43), which barely covered his basic needs. Successful months netted Kipruto $80.
And he kept running.
For two years, he rarely missed a 6 a.m. run, as far as 15 miles, before working for 12 hours a day in Koiban, his village in Nandi County. He always ran alone, doing so out of pure enjoyment. If he had the money, Kipruto could buy a used pair of running shoes for as little as $4 and train in them for a few months.
It wasn’t until a longtime friend who became a professional runner invited him on a 12-mile training run that Kipruto started considering a future in the sport. He was able to keep up with the group, and his friend pushed him to consider moving to Kapsabet, home to some of the world’s most elite training grounds, to look for a coach. Kipruto went back to his kiosk and sat alone wondering, “Can I do it?”
“Yes. It’s competitive,” Kipruto said. “But I was aware that anything that comes will not come easy.”
He was inspired by the success of one of his siblings who made a career out of the sport. After watching his older brother, Dickson Chumba, win the Tokyo Marathon twice and Chicago once, Kipruto decided to bet on himself.
He quit his kiosk and moved to Kapsabet, the capital of Nandi County, in 2015. Within a few months, he joined 2 Running Club, a team founded by Italian running coach Claudio Berardelli. He became a professional runner in 2016, finishing the Athens Marathon, his first attempt at the distance, in second place. Kipruto has since won three of the nine marathons he has entered, including Prague in 2021 and Toronto in 2018, where he set his personal record of 2 hours, 5 minutes.
“He’s risking a little bit more,” Berardelli said. “A few years ago, I was always concerned that he was too conservative. Doing the minimum necessary to achieve. You don’t discover much about yourself if you don’t risk a little bit.”
And he discovered plenty when he ran away with the win at the 2021 Boston Marathon, an accomplishment that allowed him to give back to his community in ways he did not think possible.
“The more we are successful, the more we are blessed when we give back to society, to the less fortunate. That’s where we came from,” Kipruto said. He hopes to be a role model for others; he supports school fees for three students in his village and frequently donates to his church.
“Others are following our steps. They watch how we behave,” he said.
Ultimately, that is what drives Kipruto when he’s on a starting line — to build a brighter future, not just for his family but for those who are living a life he once had. “It will come,” he would often tell himself during long runs before sunrise.
“It’s going to be tough,” he said, of the Boston Marathon ahead. “But I’m well prepared, in my legs and in my mind.”