By Prudence Minayo
Joan Chelimo is best remembered for her heroics in the 2018 Prague marathon women half marathoner where she emerged victorious clocking 1:05:04, the fourth fastest time in the race. Her story, however, traces its roots in Kipkabus village where she was born on 10 November 1990. There, she lived with her parents, three sisters and a brother in a grass-thatched house. As the eldest, she performed various duties around the house including fetching water from the river and gathering firewood in the forest.
“The routine in my village was after you finish school you get married and have kids. I wanted to know about the world and go to other countries. I wanted another life,” she said.
Here is her story as told by WoK.
Her mother worked as a primary school teacher. She loved sports especially athletics and at the age of 14 realized running and school could transform her life. She was the only girl in her village who ran competitively.
To avoid the immense stares and ridicule from villagers, she trained in the forest at 4 a.m. and at times very late at night.
When she began winning races, locals started identifying with her. By the time Chelimo was completing high school, she had become a regional champ in the 1500m race.
After high school, she was offered a scholarship to Texas Tech in the United States where her dream was to study Information Technology and continue chasing her dreams of becoming an athlete. Unfortunately, her parents could not afford the English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) test, the SAT required for admission and passport to go to the US.
As a result, she joined the scholarship-based training camp in Kaptagat called Strowbag. The camp’s fee was $100 which was beyond the financial abilities of her family. Hence, she lived separately with the ones who were not on scholarship. It was not easy as she had to live in a $5 per month mud house which she described as a ‘small, very ugly house.” It was still expensive for her and to get through life, she sold charcoal.
“People came to know me as the charcoal dealer” she said in a past interview.
Joan Chelimo would train with other runners early in the morning. Afterwards, she would head to Kaptagat forest in the company of her colleague. There, she would look for a heavy log which they would carry back and burn overnight before packaging the charcoal into sacks. She would then sell the charcoal door to door or from the house at Sh50. She would get Sh100 a day and on a good day about Sh300 Chelimo also took part in a number of cross country races and saved the money. She was able to get a passport and went to compete at the international levels.
In 2011, she took part in her first international race in Spain, the Orihuela half-marathon. She ran the marathon in one hour fifteen minutes and came third. The race was physically distressing and she thought it would be her last. After a two-months stay in Spain, she came back home and gave half of her earnings to her mother so she could pay fees for her sister. The remaining $500 she kept for her needs and moved to a $15 monthly house. From 2011 to 2014, she took part in several races across Spain and Morocco. She ended her 2014 season with three consecutive wins.
She fell pregnant and her then boyfriend kicked her out. Her savings were depleted as she used them towards the care of her unborn baby. With the help of her mother, she gave birth to baby Ariana in 2015. This situation empowered her and she was more determined to run in order to curve a successful life for herself and her daughter. In 2016, she went back to the track and came sixth in the Kericho 10k. She trained for marathons and went on to participate in the 2017 Berlin Half marathon where she completed in 68 minutes. She went on to take part in the 2017 Copenhagen half marathon. She won the 2017 and 2018 Boston Half marathon and became the fourth fastest woman in the world in 2018.
That same year, Joan Chelimo aquired Romanian citizenship and lives there to date. The 32-year-old took part in the 2022 Seoul Marathon on April 17. She won the marathon at 2:18:04. She switched her allegiance and was put on hold until 23 July 2024 when she will begin representing Romania.