The last two years he certainly has made it his own.
Cheptoek successfully defended the Woodstock men’s 5-kilometer race he won last year Saturday, setting the course record for the second year in a row and coming oh-so-close to breaking the elusive 14:00 barrier they thought was possible earlier in the week.
He finished in 14 minutes, 5 seconds, running through the neighborhood around Anniston High School and blasting the record he set last year by eight seconds – and it wasn’t even his fastest 5K of the year.
“At some point, there’s got to be a bar they can’t reach,” former Woodstock race director Dennis Dunn said.
Not anytime soon, it seems.
It was the fourth year in a row the Woodstock men’s winner broke the course record.
Cheptoek’s margin was a whopping 22 seconds ahead of Woodstock rookie Stephen Sirma. Sirma’s third-place Kongasis Camp teammate, Fred Kosgei, another Woodstock first-timer, and was another six seconds back.
“It was nice to win last year,” Cheptoek said after a brief cool-down. “I didn’t know who was going to run, so I didn’t really expect a lot.
“This year, having won the title last year, definitely there was a lot more pressure. I knew we had some guys who were way ahead of me (as 5K runners), but the only thing in my mind was to defend my title. I didn’t care who was in the race. All I needed was to win.”
The 27-year-old Ugandan, who aspires to run the 2016 Olympic marathon, was a last-minute entry to his first Woodstock a year ago and won the race by one second. This time, Cheptoek got in well ahead of the deadline and didn’t make the race close.
Even though he had to come from behind, once he sprinted to the front, he was simply too fast to catch.
“I tried to get close, but it was very, very hard,” said Sirma, a 25-year-old Kenyan who has been training in the United States less than a month. “He was very fast – very, very fast.”
The defining move came about a mile from the finish, when Daniel Kipkoech, another Kongasis runner, tested the strength of an injured leg with a speed move around Sirma on the corner and changed the pace. Cheptoek sprang into action.
“I reacted immediately,” he said. “And nobody followed me.”
Once safely in the lead, Cheptoek could concentrate on assaulting the 14-minute barrier. He had it lined up – he was at 13:54 with the finish line in his sights – but expended too much energy getting to the front on a comfortable day to run to have enough speed to get it in under the wire.
It wasn’t beyond his capabilities. He ran a 14:00.7 in Frankfort, Ky., on July 4 and finished fourth.
Still, he won the race Saturday and set the record, which was worth a $500 bonus.
“I believe it was too early, the move was too early,” he said. “If we had stayed in the same pack for at least half the course, I believe we could have run in 13, but we reacted so fast, and I ran out in front, and there was nobody to compete with.
“If I had somebody to run side by side, pushing me a little bit, we could have run in 13.”
Jacob Schwyn was the fastest local man. The 18-year-old from Oxford finished 31st among the guys (33rd overall) in a time of 18:21.
He was proud to have been the fastest local this year and had the pace of the leaders as motivation.
“I was in the middle of the race, I looked down (at his watch) and saw 15 minutes and was like, those guys are already done,” he said. “When I was in cross country, I’d train year-round, and I never ran better than 17:06, and to run 14 minutes, that’s just God-given talent.
“You can work as hard as you want to, but that’s just a gift, to me.”
Al Muskewitz is a sports writer for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @almusky_star.