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Jipcho is hitting his stride


Early morning motoring along the road between Kenya's capital, Nairobi, and its affluent suburb of Karen can be a dangerous business. Around 6 a.m. a mist hovers above the pavement and commuters on the way to the city occasionally collide with waterbuck, warthog, baboon and other species that have strolled over from nearby Nairobi National Park. Worse yet, the road is Benjamin Jipcho's favorite morning training route, and drivers risk bumping him in the fog.

This would not only be a blow—Ben Jipcho is Kenya's newest and most popular folk hero—it also would be something of a sporting switch. Lately it has been Jipcho who keeps running down others, not on Kenyan roads but on Scandinavian tracks. In a series of stunning performances in the two weeks between June 19 and July 3 Jipcho 1) broke the world record in the 3,000-meter steeplechase by one second with an 8:19.8 at Helsinki; 2) eight days later sliced a remarkable 5.8 seconds off that record when he ran 8:14.0 on the same track: 3) clocked a 3:52.0 to become the second-fastest miler in history in a meet in Stockholm: and 4) came back the next day to win the steeplechase in 8:18.2, the second-best time ever recorded.

As if this were not enough, Jipcho's Scandinavian summer is not over yet, nor is his love affair with the loyal fans who turn out to cheer him there on bright evenings. After a brief rest in Kenya, he returned to run in Oslo and Stockholm this week—all by way of warming up for Aug. 3 and 4 when he will be competing in the U.S.-Africa meet in Dakar, Senegal.

At 30, Jipcho has emerged this summer as his sport's most versatile and impressive runner, the successor to former teammate Kipchoge Keino who joined the professionals last February. "Ben can still do even better," Keino said last week and Jipcho, though modest, tends to agree. "I am certain I can go well under 8:10 in the steeplechase," he says, "and with a perfect track and the pressure of a world-class field, I think I might even do it someday in under eight minutes." In the mile, only Jim Ryun has clocked faster times than Jipcho—3:51.3 in 1966 and 3:51.1 in 1967, which is still the world record but a mark that looks in jeopardy now.

At Dakar, Jipcho plans to enter the steeplechase, the 1,500 meters and possibly the 5,000 meters, just the sort of ambitious schedule Keino used to enjoy. It is the timetable of a man with definite goals in mind and Jipcho has two big ones: he wants to break the world record for the 1,500 meters, and he wants to be the first to break any world record on African soil. While he is still 3.5 seconds short of Ryun's 3:33.1 mark at 1,500 meters, he can imagine a dream field—including Keino, Ryun, Filbert Bayi of Tanzania, who paced Jipcho to his 3:52 mile, and Dave Wottle—that could produce a new record. "If that race ever happened," he says, "whoever wins would have to run 3:30. If I were inspired that day, maybe I would do it."

Since it is most unlikely that a race between pros and amateurs could come about soon, Jipcho may have to try with less than a dream field, say at Dakar. "Ron Clarke of Australia said it cannot be done, setting a world record on an African track," Jipcho says, "but I will show him someday."

Until this year, Jipcho had always been in Keino's shadow. But now he has new status: two weeks ago, arriving home from Scandinavia, he was treated to a hero's welcome by a brass band—appropriately from the Kenya Prisons Department for which he works as a lecturer in penology and as a phys ed instructor. And also there to greet him was Keino.

Jipcho went off on a three-day vacation with his wife and three children at his farm in the tiny village of Chepchabai near Mt. Elgon, some 250 miles from Nairobi, then returned to the capital again, once more to run the pavement toward Karen in the early morning mist, wearing his red, yellow and green warmup suit. He does eight training miles a day, confessing, "I must discipline myself to do it, for sometimes in the morning the blanket is so sweet."

With a trim 150 pounds on his 5'8" frame, Jipcho feels he is at his peak. "This is the time to try for records in the shorter distances," he says, "while my muscles are still supple. Maybe when I'm old—say 33—I'll try the 10,000 meters. Now I run whatever I feel I can do best on a given day." Jipcho even claims that he does not mind losing once in a while. "It is not good to win all the time," he says. "If you always win and then lose, it may get you so down that you might never win again."

Such a dire future will never loom for Jipcho if the Scandinavian fans have a say in it. In Helsinki an estimated 25,000 spectators were in a bedlam over Jipcho's record race. A crowd of 18,120 packed Stockholm's 61-year-old Olympic stadium to watch "the colossal duel [between Jipcho and Bayi] for a world record in the mile," as one reporter described it. They saw the 20-year-old Bayi set a blistering pace with Jipcho settling 10 yards behind. Then as Bayi began to fade and Jipcho passed the Tanzanian with 75 yards to go, the Swedes were on their feet to cheer the winner of the fastest mile ever run in Europe.

"That, maybe, was my best race so far," Jipcho says. "The crowd was chanting Jip-cho, Jip-cho, Jip-cho. Imagine those people, total strangers, cheering for me. I was inspired."