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Inside Lane: Paul Chelimo Transitions to Longer Races, and Shorter Nights

The top male distance runner in America is adjusting to post-Army life and navigating the challenges of new parenthood while looking forward to a World Champs double.

Five months ago, Paul Chelimo was plotting his takeover of the 10K.

With two global medals in the 5K under his belt, adding the longer race to his repertoire at the USATF National Championships and IAAF World Outdoor Championships in 2019 seemed doable, if ambitious. There was potential to chase the double at Olympic Games in 2020.

There was just one problem: The best distance runner in America couldn’t train, thanks to an inflamed achilles tendon. He couldn’t work out in spikes or string together more than a few consecutive days of eight mile runs.

 Meanwhile, Chelimo had more free time than ever to stress about his injury. The five-time national champion was adjusting to the newfound freedom of civilian life after having spent the previous four years of his running career balancing high-level training with his full-time obligations to the United States Army.

Then his wife—Brenda Kerubo—gave birth to their first child, a daughter named Arianna Chebet Chelimo, on December 20, 2018.

And, just like that, everything fell into place.

“When I was in Kenya, people said that when you have a baby, that’s the year that you run really fast,” Chelimo said by phone last week. “I was talking to Bethwel Birgen and he was like, ‘Don’t even worry, you’re gonna run fast this year.’ I said, ‘With all these Achilles [problems], it’s gonna be a tough year,’ and he was like, ‘Just watch.’”

Birgen, a middle-distance runner for Kenya, seems to be right so far.

Chelimo’s Achilles issues resolved themselves by mid-January. Though he had to scrap the indoor track season, he was able to log 100 miles a week for five consecutive weeks—a personal mileage best—and made his half marathon debut at the New York City Half in March.

Despite a travel experience from hell—bad weather cancelled his flight on Wednesday and he didn’t make it to New York until 3 a.m. on Saturday before the race—Chelimo’s debut half marathon was successful. He placed third overall and finished as the top American in 62:19.

“That’s the type of performance where I come in third place and I’m still very happy,” Chelimo says. “I didn’t have the best preparation that I would have wanted to have… it’s just little adjustments [to make] to win the race. It’s becoming tempting now, I want to do another half marathon so bad… I’m putting that in my plans and maybe in the near future, I should be able to look for a fast course and maybe go for the American record.”

He’s also recorded some insane workouts of late, including one that he calls his best-ever: a two by three-mile tempo run recorded in 13:35 and 13:10 with just three minutes rest in between. Yes, 13:10.

Though he’s excited to test that fitness on the roads again—“one thing I know is, the marathon is where my future is”—Chelimo currently has some unfinished business on the track.

He wants to add gold to his collection of global medals in the 5K—which currently includes silver from the 2016 Olympic Games and bronze from the 2017 IAAF World Championships. And there’s certainly a possibility of medaling in the 10K.

“My college coach used to say eventually I’d be a really strong 10K guy,” Chelimo says of Linh Nguyen, who coached him at UNC Greensboro and is currently the director of track and field and cross country at the University of Toledo. “I’m following his words. I know the way I ran New York City Half, I know it’s not the same as a 10K, but that tells me I have a lot of strength, especially for the 10K.”

Chelimo has technically raced the 10K twice, but not since college, when he swept the 5K and 10K distances at the 2011 NAIA Outdoor Track & Field Championships—practically a lifetime ago. His personal best is 29:44.42.

This year’s world championships schedule is more amenable to the 5K/10K double, from Chelimo’s perspective. In recent years, the 10K has been contested before the 5K but that timeline will flip for this fall’s event in Doha, Qatar. The Tokyo Olympic Games schedule set the men’s 10K a full week before the 5K final.

“My big goal is to go to the well in the 5K,” he says. “I’ve never been in a 5K championship that I haven’t medaled. If I medal in the 5K, definitely, there’s a very good chance I can medal in the 10K because I have nothing to lose. If I do a race because I’m just trying to enjoy it, that’s when I perform really well.”

Without his obligations to the Army, Chelimo will be able to travel abroad earlier in the summer and get a headstart on adjusting to the time difference. He plans to spend time in Kenya or Ethiopia before the world championships.

“This is the first time that I don’t have to deal with time zones,” he says. “Now I can travel and go to Kenya or go [somewhere else in] the same time zone and fly into Doha and do the race, not worry about the time difference. That’s always my hardest part.

“The time difference is what killed me in London [at the 2017 IAAF World Championships]. I slept all day and all night until race day, which made my body more tired. The races I go to without the time difference, for example Rio [2016 Olympic Games], it was only a two-hour time difference so it was easy for me to adjust.”

But before he needs to worry about acclimating to the time difference in Africa, Chelimo has some adjusting to do right at home in Colorado Springs. He’s a new parent to a brand-new baby, after all.

Brenda usually takes care of Arianna if she wakes up crying in the middle of the night, but Chelimo must pitch in on long days while his wife is at school. She commutes to Concord College in Denver two days a week to finish her requirements for a nursing degree; she wakes up at 4:00 a.m. and doesn’t return home until after 7:00 p.m. Friends help babysit on Fridays, when Chelimo must report for workouts. Sleep has certainly become a cherished commodity in their household, and Chelimo says he’d “rather miss anything”—a hard workout or run—than a good night of sleep.

“My wife tries to make sure I get enough rest but when the baby cries at night, it’s hard,” he says. “Sometimes I just wake up. I’m getting used to it. If I don’t get good sleep at night, I try to take a long nap during the day to compensate. Sleep to a runner is the most important thing… I have to be really strict.”

The task of caring for a newborn has essentially filled the void that Chelimo’s Army requirements briefly left.

“I thought [my schedule] would change but I still have more responsibilities,” he says. “It’s a good pressure. It’s a good stress. You know, she’s the reason why I wake up everyday and the reason why I work so hard, more than I used to before,” he says.

“It’s changed how I train and how I think, because now I train more…I would say, I train more responsibly. I now have to take care of my daughter. It’s a good feeling.”

Does he see her following his footsteps into the world of track and field?

“Oh my god, already, she has long femur, long legs,” he says, laughing. “So she might be a good runner already! I call her ‘Fast and Furious.’”