A Hotbed of Distance Running Talent Emerges in Uganda
By: Isaac Yuan
It was a pleasantly warm afternoon in the Ugandan capital of Kampala, but with a mile to go in the 2017 World Cross Country Championships, Joshua Cheptegei was definitely not focusing on the weather. He had only one thing on his mind: to win the gold medal for his country.
Unfortunately, as his body fended off dehydration, it wasn’t a story where the main character always wins, and, not long after, Cheptegei finally wore out. His running became a shuffle, and he came in 30th out of 136 runners.
Still, this race was more of a prelude to an Ugandan running renaissance. Two years later, he won the 2019 World Cross Country Championship. Cheptegei has then obtained a place in the list of distance running’s champions, with an Olympic gold medal in the 2020 Summer Olympics and two World Championship titles on the track, as well as world records in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters.
Kiplimo, who dethroned Cheptegei, now holds the half-marathon world record. In 2019, Halimah Nakaayi won the World Championship title in the 800 meters, and not long after, Peruth Chemutai won the Olympic gold medal in the 3,000-meter steeplechase in 2021.
In Kapchorwa, a small town in the foothills of Mount Elgon, a lofty 14,000-foot extinct volcano that straddles the Kenyan border, hundreds of young kids are hitting the roads with dreams of future glory. It is here, in Kampala, that running is thriving and developing. Sure, Uganda’s talent still falls behind that of Kenya and Ethiopia, but its running has still risen far above what it was before. “Every year, as a country, we’re getting better and better,” Cheptegei said on an April afternoon as he looked to defend his 10,000-meter record. “The Mount Elgon region has always been home to running talent, and we’re only just beginning to showcase it.”