When Mary Keitany was a young girl the journey to and from school was 13 miles. Mostly she walked, but other times she ran carrying her heavy books along the dusty roads of Baringo County in eastern Kenya where her rural village was located.
If that regime combined with her determined mindset and natural athletic gifts helped Keitany develop a talent for distance running, her high threshold for pain has served the marathon runner well.
“Running is difficult, it is painful,” Keitany, 37, told CNN Sport from New York where she is preparing to defend her New York City Marathon title on Sunday. “I love it, but it is not easy.”
Records in the crosshairs
Last year Keitany won her fourth NYC Marathon title after claiming a hat-trick of triumphs between 2014 and 2016. She also owns one silver and two bronze medals from the race.
“I just love New York,” adding Keitany, reflecting on her success in New York. “The crowd is fantastic. They cheer my name from start to finish and I am ready to defend my title. I like the course, although it is tough. But when I am in this race the fans push me forward. They encourage me to keep going and I cannot wait to be back out there.”
Apart from another gold medal to place in her overflowing trophy cabinet — that also includes three gold medals and one silver from the London Marathon — Keitany is also targeting two NYC Marathon records.
The current course record stands at 2:22:31, set by fellow Kenyan Margaret Okayo in 2003. Last year, Keitany crossed the line 17 seconds adrift, but is confident she can find the extra 1.5 seconds per mile needed to break this record.
“I’ll need the weather to be good, but if I run my best I can do it,” said Keitany, referencing her time of 2:17:01 she ran at London 2017 — the third fastest marathon time run by a woman. “I just need to improve a little. I know I can do it.”
If Keitany wins a fifth title on Sunday, she will be four titles short of Norwegian Grete Waitz’s nine wins — secured between 1978 and 1989.
“Grete’s record motivates me,” said Keitany. “I want to follow in her steps and eventually overtake her. History is important to me.”
What makes Keitany’s career even more impressive is that she has juggled staying at the top of her profession with motherhood.
“It is not easy to come back from maternity or from raising your young child and maintain your best levels,” she explained. “We see so many women athletes struggle to come back. There are so many challenges and many can’t cope.”
“But I am lucky. My children — 11-year-old Jared and six-year-old Samantha — understand what running is all about and how demanding it is. They know that I need to rest after training and they make it easy for me. My family are so helpful and I wouldn’t have been able to come back if I didn’t have them.”
Keitany’s husband, Charles Koech, who is also a runner at the elite level, serves as her coach and mainstay, transporting her to and from training and traveling with her around the world.
“He is my inspiration,” Keitany beamed. “I love him very much.”
Despite the race wins and records, Keitany confessed that there is one particular trinket that she desperately craves — an Olympic medal.
At London 2012, Keitany arrived having run the fastest time of the year. At the halfway mark she was among the leading pack but fell away and finished fourth.
Four years later in Rio, she was not included in Kenya’s powerful field and watched her compatriot Jemima Sumgong claim gold.
“I’ve wanted an Olympic medal for so long,” she said. “It has eluded me. I’ve won many titles and I am happy and in a good position, but I really want to win a medal next year in Tokyo.”
“There are many Kenyans who can dominate and can win at the Olympics,” added Keitany. “You see for many years how strong we are as a country. It gives us great pride to wave our flag high for the world to see.”
“You saw how Eliud [Kipchoge] did that when he ran a sub-two [hour marathon at Vienna in October]. Even though it wasn’t sanctioned by the IAAF it was still a special moment and the whole country, even the president and deputy, spoke about how important it was. I hope to be at Tokyo and will do my best to win a medal.”
Even if Keitany does not fulfill that Olympic dream, her legacy will live long after she has hung up her shoes given she has helped build a school and church near her village in Kenya. She says she is motivated to help children get to school without needing to trek long distances under the African sun.
“It is great to give back to the community,” Keitany said. “This sport has given me so much. It has been difficult at times but it has also been a joy.
“Every day I am blessed to be able to do what I do. I want to win races and represent my country, but helping others, building schools, building churches, this is what keeps me going. I will run as long as I can but I will continue to give even after that.”