He’s in there, somewhere — behind the nearly 8-foot concrete wall crowned with a security barrier of broken bottles, behind the steel gate blocking intruders’ entry to his mansion and past his personal security guard. Wilson Kipsang is perhaps the most elegant man in all of Kenya. Six feet tall and slender and sinewy at 137 pounds, he is the onetime world-record holder for the marathon, and his personal best of 2:03:13 is just 16 seconds off the current record. He has notched four sub-2:04 marathons, more than anyone else in history. When he runs — his gleaming bald head erect, his arm carriage low, his whole body tilted subtly forward as his knees rise only minimally — he seems to be gracing the earth.
When Kipsang is not running, that grace remains. The man is smooth. He’s genial. He is cool and composed. He is also, yes, a politician, and he’s running for a seat in the Kenyan Parliament. On Friday, he’ll face 11 other candidates in a primary vote to determine the Jubilee Party candidate in his district. (Whoever wins Jubilee in his district will likely win the general election in August.) On TV of late, he’s been superb.
So why is he making me wait outside this concrete wall in the small Kenyan city of Iten? Why did he tell me to arrive at 6 a.m. and why, at 7:30, am I still waiting, obliged to pass beggarly notes to his security guard? Is this guy for real? Is he the man of the people he purports to be? Recent news reports have questioned his integrity. There are allegations afoot that Kipsang has bribed voters in hopes of winning the primary, allegations that he and his campaign have publicly denied.
I keep waiting. It’s 8 a.m. It’s 8:30. Finally, at about 8:40, the guard beckons me inside, into Kipsang’s receiving room, where a plenitude of running trophies is arrayed on the mantel amid a few scattered belongings left by his four children, and I see the man himself. He is smiling. He is folded into an easy chair, a study in angles and bones, and he is swaying to the Afropop music streaming out of the television. He shakes my hand and he laughs, and for a moment my doubts melt away. I think to myself, “This man is nothing but kindness and goodness.”
It is almost impossible to convey how proud Kenya is of its distance runners, who in the past 10 Boston Marathons have won five men’s titles and seven women’s titles. The pride jumps out from the road signs. Iten is the “Home of Champions.” Eldoret, less than an hour away, is the “City of Champions.” And there is little debate over which contemporary champion instills the most pride.
At 35, Kipsang has already established himself as a daring young businessman. In 2013, he turned an Iten farm field into the swank Keellu Resort Center, a 30-room hotel, and he did so with flourish, not even waiting for the corn to ripen before he broke ground. (He sold his corn green, astonishing locals.) Then in 2014, he founded the Professional Athletes Association of Kenya to do battle with Athletics Kenya, a…