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St. Raphael’s Darius Kipyego Is Mixing It Up With The Pros

Darius and Coach
Darius Kipyego and Coach Chris Magill – Photo: Brendan McGair

How did you spend your summer?

For St. Raphael Academy senior-to-be Darius Kipyego, the answer speaks to the places he’s traveled to and how his feet have served as his intrepid guide.

Undoubtedly you’ve heard of the Running of the Bulls, the longstanding Spanish tradition where speed and strategy seem the keys to success if you’re brave enough to attempt to escape the raging bulls’ horns. In Kipyego’s case, what he’s done should be regarded as the “Summer of Running with the Pros.”

When Kipyego heads to Newton, Massachusetts on Monday, Sept. 7 for the Labor Day Showdown, he will once again own the distinction of being the youngest competitor in the 800-meter run. Don’t expect him to be intimidated, however, as he squares off against individuals who are steadfast in their mission to qualify for next year’s U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials.

Kipyego, who turns 18 on Sept. 5, knows what to expect when it comes to lining up against runners who are older and, therefore, more experienced. Twice this summer, he’s competed in a field of largely professional runners. His Labor Day Showdown appearance completes an unofficial hat trick (triple crown?) summer activity slate that was carefully planned to test his mettle against seasoned competition.

“We’re always looking to see what we can do better,” said Kipyego during a break from a morning workout earlier this week at Lincoln’s Chase Farm Park.

Kipyego’s junior season at St. Raphael saw him reach plenty of running benchmarks en route to being named the 2019-20 Gatorade Rhode Island Boys Track and Field Athlete of the Year. In the fall, as a cross-country performer, he earned First-Team All-State and All-New England status. In the winter, he became a back-to-back state champion in the boys’ 600. WorldAthletics.org ranked him No. 1 in the world among 800-meter athletes under 18 years old after Kipyego hustled to a time of 1:52.55 at a meet held at Boston University on December 14, 2019.

Kipyego and Chris Magill, his high school head coach, suggest that the performance which expedited the process of securing entries for Summer 2020 races representing a significant jump in weight class and sheer ability was last summer’s Pan-Am Under-20 Championships. It was there in Costa Rica, that Kipyego broke 1:49 in the 800 for the first time in his career by taking second place with a time of 1:49.46.

A youngster who can achieve THAT time in THAT particular running discipline is what you call an organizer’s dream.

“You’ve got to find a spot in the race for a kid like that,” noted Magill, who scoured websites and tapped his running connections, all while crossing his fingers that a possibility would even be offered to run competitively amidst a global pandemic. “It’s a learning experience that’s been incredible for him.”

To Kipyego’s credit, he’s succeeded in holding his own against a vastly different breed of competition. On Monday, July 27, he finished sixth in the 800 meters in the Track is Back – Meet 3 at Hall High School in West Hartford, Connecticut. Running against a field of elite professionals, he completed the race in a new Rhode Island-record time of 1:48:82.

“It’s great to not just have races, but to be able to race at another level,” said Kipyego.

Just last Saturday, Kipyego flew to Nashville, Tennessee. for the 18th annual Music City Distance Carnival at Lipscomb Academy. Just like in West Hartford, Kipyego handled himself well with seasoned runners everywhere he turned. He ran in the second heat of the 800 and took second place, as well as ninth overall, in a time of 1:49.98.

To give you an idea of who Kipyego was going up against, the overall winner of the Music City Distance Carnival was Michael Saruni of Kenya, whose time was 1:46.13. One of the runners that Kipyego beat in his heat was former SEC champion Edward Kemboi, who now races for the Atlanta Track Club.

“I’ve worked hard to be here and want to see where I rank with these guys,” said Kipyego, whose list of potential college suitors includes Texas A&M, Penn State, Kansas, Iowa State, USC, Arizona State, Virginia, and Michigan.

“It’s not like, ‘Here are the professionals and then there’s the high school kid.’ He’s mixing it up and showing that he’s fearless,” said Magill.

In West Hartford and Nashville, Kipyego found himself observing how the runners went about their pre-race preparations … what time they stretch or head out for warmups.

“Just seeing everyone’s mindset, it’s a serious game. You see how dedicated they are. They want to do the best,” said Kipyego. “I’ll text (Magill) and suggest maybe we should look into doing this or that.”

Even more refreshing to learn is that Kipyego’s competitors have accepted him.

“They’re all super nice and I’ve had the chance to cool down with them,” said Kipyego. “They gave me a bunch of pointers and tips to help me out in the future. They’ve helped me understand that mentality is everything and helps to separate the elite runners from the very good ones.”

It’ll amount to a three-week break between Nashville and the final leg of Kipyego’s summer gauntlet. Training will be conducted with an eye to making sure the teenager is primed and ready to go up against another group of pros before shifting his focus back to the high school circuit.

“I’ve been speechless. I didn’t know if I would be able to race during the summer,” said Kipyego.