Kenya's golden girl, Mary Keitany, is the very definition of a real-life hero. Her days of hardship have inspired countless other girls, having been forced to drop out of school and work as a housemaid for two years.
Born in January 18, 1982, in a small remote area of Kiplombe location, Baringo, to Juda and Jane Chepkeitany, Keitany's childhood was humble, to put it mildly.
She once took a Daily Nation journalist to the very hills she hailed from, where she would sit to tend goats.
Keitany went on to explain how she would carry pails of water for several kilometers along a treacherous path.
"We were too poor for a donkey, so we had to carry," she laughs as she recalls the days of hardship.
Her early life is one that seems to be plucked straight from fiction, as she had to conquer seemingly insurmountable odds to become a world legend in the athletics field.
Living in barren bushland, on a hill the locals call, Makilany, she walked or ran a good 20km to and from primary school each morning.
Not many know that the legendary marathoner who has 10 gold, 4 silver and 2 bronze in her enviable collection actually started out as a househelp.
After completing her primary school and with no money to pursue further education, the young Keitany was forced to seek out work, ending up as a live-in-servant.
She moved in with a family in the area who had tasked her with taking care of their three children, all younger than 7.
Her days were filled with getting them ready for school in the morning, making batches of ugali, washing the family’s clothes, scrubbing dishes and keeping the house clean.
“It was not an easy job,” Keitany stated in an interview. “But I was getting money to give to my parents. I was thinking, ‘If I don’t do this, then what?’”
She was forced to go for months on end without seeing her family but always made sure to always carry something with her for them.
It was a sort of trade-off, whenever she had enough money, she used to buy house supplies for her parents and 3 sisters (Ann, Priscah, and Sarah), then walk for at least 2 hours to deliver the bag of goodies.
“I couldn’t go home empty-handed,” she recalled.
Her fortunes took a turn back in 2001, when she was enrolled into the National Hidden Talents Academy, a private secondary school in Dagoretti Constituency in Nairobi County for orphans and underprivileged children.
Keitany credits her mentor, Linah Chesire (a former professional athlete), for pushing her to pursue her education, insisting that despite her undeniable talent, she needed to complete her education so that she would be able to manage her future winnings wisely.
In 2006, after finishing secondary school, she opted to pursue running as a career.
Linah took her to Iten where she was introduced to Christine Chepkonga and stayed in her house along with fellow athletes Gladys Chepkirui and June Jepkoech.
"I said to Chepkonga, ‘This lady is better than all of us. She will be the champion, we need to support her.’ And Chepkonga agreed," Linah recalled during an interview with the Daily Nation in 2018.
The three upcoming athletes stayed in a three by one (kitchen, sitting room and one-bedroom).
She won her first international competition, the Seville Half Marathon, less than a year later, an experience that motivated her that running was her true purpose.
Keitany has since gone on to re-define what the human body is capable of, winning marathons across the world, and setting new records while at it.
In 2008, she took time off to give birth to her son Jared Kipchumba only to bag gold at the Birmingham half-marathon a year later, a fete which left New York City Marathon race director, Mary Wittenberg in awe.
"Mary was fearless and ferocious in her first world championship half marathon win in Birmingham. Just over a year after giving birth to her son, she dictated the pace and terms of that race and dominated in a blazing 66:36. I knew I was watching a one of a kind athlete," Wittenberg stated.
2011 saw Keitany set a World Record at the half marathon, dipping under 66-minutes for the first time in history on a regulated course recording 65:50, at the Ras Al Khaimah half marathon.
Once again, maternity leave saw the birth of Samantha Jerop on April 4, 2013, but a year later Mary was back on track winning in New York City, an achievement she would repeat the following year.
Each of these races usually comes with a pot of gold for the victor, with Ksh10 million the average per circuit.
Keitany has not forgotten her humble beginnings when she talks to her children, and Hezron -the family’s adopted nephew who lives with Jared and Samantha, her stories are of the Bible (her favourite book) and her lessons from her childhood.
"Yes, I have come a long way. But I will never forget home and what they taught me," she stated while speaking to the Daily Nation back in 2018.
On August 11, 2018, the star opened the Mary Keitany School in Elgeyo Marakwet, her little way of giving back to society, and ensuring young girls and boys coming up in her home town had access to education.
"If I can win a few more marathons, that's well and good," Keitany stated in the build-up to the New York 2019 marathon. "But I want to try to remember how I felt when I ran everywhere as a kid. I want that feeling of freedom and the air on my face, and I want to run this marathon for the love of it all," she narrated.
However, her biggest dream is to secure gold in this year's summer Olympics, an achievement that has eluded her, an anomaly she is hell-bent on correcting in Tokyo 2020.