Athletics

‘Coronarun’ champions: How these group of Kenyan runners ran solo half marathons in super-fast times

"It was like chasing an imaginary person and being chased by somebody you can't see," Edwin Kirwa told Olympic Channel. 

By Evelyn Watta ·

Edwin Kirwa should have been traveling to China this week for the Wuhan Marathon had things panned out as scheduled.

Instead the Kenyan marathoner, who like most athletes all over the world is stuck at home unable to compete due to the coronavirus pandemic, ran ‘a different kind of race’.

Kirwa was part of 30 elite Kenyan runners who ran 21 km races across various locations in the country, not as a group but each entirely alone.

With his planned athletics event in Wuhan called off, the 40-year-old raced to a personal best of 1 hour 1 minute 52 seconds on a fairly flat course in central Kenya.

This would rank him among the 50 fastest half marathoners this season.

It was a different kind of running. It was like chasing an imaginary person and being chased by somebody you can’t see - Edwin Kirwa to Olympic Channel.

Running competitively, alone

Kirwa’s form was peaking as he had been training vigorously for the Wuhan Marathon originally planned for 12 April. He finished third in last year's race.

Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province, has been on lockdown for over two months.

The city’s marathon is among hundreds of races that have either been cancelled or postponed.

“Since our training camps were closed, we have been training alone," Kirwa told the Olympic Channel from his base in Embu, a town that is on the south-eastern side of Mount Kenya.

"But to run a race competitively alone? I never imagined it. That was something else.

“I am usually a slow starter, but last weekend my fastest distance was the second kilometre that I did in 2:43. The course was good apart from a steep [part] which I had to climb a bit at the end,” said Kirwa, a 2:11 marathoner.

Edwin Kirwa, the winner of the coronarun.

The virtual run

Two weeks ago the runners Dutch based management company, Volare Sports, decided to organise the virtual 21 km run on 4 April, to coincide with what would have been “the busiest race weekend of the year, filled with road races and marathons.”

The condition was that each of the runner would race a half marathon completely alone in their local surrounding.

That meant some had flat courses, while others had steep ascents.

“We assumed that we were running races abroad, so at 8 a.m. sharp we all set off from our different locations armed only with our GPS watches,” Kirwa explained.

'Running in a street in Europe'

It was the same approach taken by Fancy Chemutai, who missed the world half marathon record by a second in 2018 when she won the Ras Al Khaimah Half Marathon in the UAE.

Running around her home town of Kericho, in the highlands west of the Kenyan Rift Valley, Chemutai timed one hour 10 minutes five seconds, the fastest of the 10 women.

“It was challenging but what I did I imagined I was running in a street in Europe for most of it." - Fancy Chemutai to Olympic Channel.

“I was like running in my debut race in 2017 in Prague. I was in Kericho, but in my mind I was on the streets of Prague where I ran most of the race all alone," said Chemutai, who normally trains around the tea plantations.

"In Prague the number one was way ahead of me going for the world record, while number two was close by chasing her. I was far behind in position three, all alone. This race took me back to that time.”

Fancy Chemutai won the women's 'coronarun'.

Good learning experiences

Both runners are conscious of the fact that they are among a few athletes around the world who are still able to train for future races and even race outside.

The Kenyan government has banned social gatherings and sports activities.

Athletics Kenya also ordered all training camps in the country closed and asked athletes to observe social distancing and train individually.

There was so much for them to learn from the unusual half marathon.

Chemutai told Olympic Channel: “Interestingly I was reluctant to race last weekend. I didn’t think I was in shape for any competitive running at this time, as I had not even had a chance to gauge myself against anyone.

“But I decided to try it and look at what I did. So you don’t always have to put in your head that you can’t, first go try it.

"I enjoyed the race and at the end I celebrated like I had won a real race.”

Meanwhile, of his novel experience, Kirwa shared: “When my friends saw my time the told me, ‘You could have gone even faster if we did it together!'”

He is used to running with pacemakers and training with fellow athletes, but he now values his teammates even more.

“When we train or ran together in a group, we push and motivate each other. The race that I will remember all my life proved one thing, when you ran together you achieve more, teamwork does it!”