When it comes to the greatest of all time (GOAT) conversation in distance running, two names top the list: Kenenisa Bekele and Eliud Kipchoge. Both men are world record-holders and Olympic champions, and in the past decade, no other runner has come close to matching either Bekele’s or Kipchoge’s levels. That began to change when Joshua Cheptegei started breaking world records in late 2018. Since then, he has been virtually unstoppable, and it looks like he’s just getting started. He still has a long way to go to reach GOAT status, but at just 24 years old, if Cheptegei stays on this trajectory, he has a serious shot at becoming the best ever.
Head to head
With five world championship crowns on the track, three Olympic gold medals and the 10,000m world record of 26:17.53, the 38-year-old Bekele has had a stellar career. He also has the second-fastest times in the marathon (2:01:41, just two seconds shy of the world record) and 5,000m (which Cheptegei only recently bettered in Monaco). Kipchoge, who is reportedly 35 years old (although many people believe he is actually older), has had an equally-impressive career. He has an Olympic gold medal and the marathon world record of 2:01:39, and in 2019, he became the first human to run a sub-two-hour marathon when he ran a 1:59:40 in Vienna.
Cheptegei is more than a decade younger than the two legends, but his resume is already comparable. He is the owner of the world records for the 5,000m, 5K and 15K, and he briefly had the 10K road world record, too, which he ran in December 2019 (his time was beaten by Rhonex Kipruto in January 2020). In 2019, he ran to two world championship gold medals, first at the World Cross Country Championships in Denmark and then in the 10,000m in Doha.
What’s up next
Cheptegei now has his eyes on the 10,000m record, which he will aim to beat at an event called the NN Valencia World Record Day in Valencia, Spain, on October 7. If he can beat Bekele’s mark (which is 31 seconds faster than Cheptegei’s 26:48.36 PB), the result will be his fifth world record in two years (including his now-bettered 10K time) and his third of 2020 after setting the 5K best in February and the 5,000m record in August, both in Monaco.
A little more than a week after his record attempt in Spain, Cheptegei will run his half-marathon debut at the World Athletics Half Marathon Championships in Gdynia, Poland. Although he has yet to run a 21.1K race, Cheptegei’s 15K world record is proof that he can hammer a long road race, and as he showed with his recent run at the Monaco Diamond League, he is in tremendous shape right now.
Will Joshua Cheptegei take the throne in Valencia?
Will he break 26:17.53 for 10,000 meters?
👑 5,000m World Record Holder
👑 World Champion 10,000m
👑 World Champion Cross Country#KingsWeek #NNValenciaWRDay pic.twitter.com/dGiSuORHV8
— NN Running Team (@NNRunningTeam) September 22, 2020
After a busy October, he will presumably take a much-deserved rest before 2021 and the build toward the Tokyo Olympics. Cheptegei ran to a pair of top-10 finishes at the Rio Games in the 5,000m and 10,000m, but in 2021, he will be the man to beat in both of those races. Olympic gold would elevate him even higher in the GOAT conversation, but the real kicker to solidify his position as the best runner of all time is how he fares in the marathon.
After success on the track, both Bekele and Kipchoge transitioned to amazing marathon careers, and the road is really where Kipchoge ascended from good to great. If Cheptegei can find success in the marathon, he will be at least a top-three runner all-time, if not the undisputed best. That is still years away, and we have to see how he does with his 10,000m record attempt and half-marathon debut first. While we can’t definitively say Cheptegei will end his career as the GOAT, we can say this: it will be a thrill to watch him fight for that title over the next decade.