Viola Lagat aims to honour the late Agnes Tirop in New York Marathon

Viola Cheptoo Lagat celebrates her second place at the 2021 New York Marathon
Viola Cheptoo Lagat finished second in last year’s New York Marathon on what was her debut over the distance

Kenyan marathon runner Viola Cheptoo Lagat says she will be driven by the desire to win for murdered compatriot Agnes Tirop during Sunday’s New York Marathon.

Lagat finished behind Olympic champion Peres Jepchirchir on her marathon debut in the American city last year before dedicating her silver medal to Tirop, who was found dead at her house three weeks prior to the event.

But the 33-year-old is determined to go one better at this year’s famed five-borough race as she aims to honour Tirop.

“I’m going to work hard to win for her this time,” Lagat told BBC Sport Africa.

“My mind is in a good place and I’ve got really good training in this time around. I feel stronger and I know the field is also strong, but I know the spirit of Agnes is still going to fight with me like last time.

“I don’t want to let anyone down, especially the spirit of Agnes that has fought with us from the beginning.

“It’s going to be a tough field, but I’m going in feeling strong and I hope most of my hard work in the last few months is going to take me through.”

Lagat clocked two hours 22 minutes and 44 seconds in New York last November – which remains her personal best marathon time – crossing the line five seconds behind winner Jepchirchir.

She was one minute and three seconds slower as she finished sixth in the Boston Marathon in April this year, but is expecting another fast race in the ‘Big Apple’ this weekend.

Tirop’s Angels

Agnes Tirop poses with a running shoe emblazoned with her 10km world record
Agnes Tirop was a two-time bronze medallist at the World Athletics Championships over 10,000m

Tirop finished fourth in the 5,000m at the Tokyo Olympics in August last year and Lagat was with her a few weeks later when she smashed the women’s-only 10km world record in Germany, crossing the line in 30 minutes and one second.

As Lagat recalled her marathon debut in New York last year, she admitted her thoughts rarely strayed from reflections on her slain compatriot.

“For some reason I kept reflecting on the race that I watched – Agnes breaking the world record in Germany – because we were there [together]. I ran the half marathon that time,” she added.

“When I got to New York, it would flash in my head. I was thinking ‘I hope I won’t get distracted in the middle of a race and just lose it’.

“When I finished, I thought ‘You know, that was God’ and I feel like Agnes wanted me to do it that way.”

Lagat has begun work to honour her friend, coming together with other athletes and Tirop’s family to form Tirop’s Angels,external-link a foundation that aims to stand in unity against gender-based violence.

The death of Tirop, whose husband Ibrahim Rotich – who denies wrongdoing – is awaiting trail for her murder, has also changed her perspective on athletics, her own career and women who may be facing abuse in their domestic lives.

“I didn’t know she was going through that and I could never assume anything,” Lagat said.

“I would see women going for their rounds, and I’m waving at them without knowing what they’re dealing with.

“What we know now is that there are [female] athletes who have been forced to go to races even when they’re not healthy to make money for somebody who is sitting and waiting for her pay cheque.

“I’m so blessed I don’t have to do that. I’m running with a clear mind so I have to keep doing this – and I have to win for those women who cannot.”

New York on her mind

Lagat expects a strong challenge on Sunday, with debutant Hellen Obiri, defending champion Jepchirchir and Emily Sisson among the entrants.

She has her eye on fellow Kenyan Obiri, a two-time world champion and double Olympic 5,000m silver medallist.

“From what I did last year, when I debuted in New York and came second, I’m starting to think that people who debut can actually surprise you and they can come for your money,” Lagat said.

“I know Obiri’s going to come ready. She already knows what the field looks like. In fact, she’s top of my list of the people that I’m really scared about. I think about her all the time.

“With people you are familiar with, it is easy to calculate their moves and what they’re going to do, but for somebody like Obiri you never know.”

Viola Cheptoo Lagat, Ababel Yeshaneh and Peres Jepchirchir in action at the 2021 New York Marathon
Lagat faces competition from fellow New York Marathon medallists Ababel Yeshaneh and Peres Jepchirchir

Elsewhere, Lagat expects a fast race given what she describes as a “tough field” heading to New York.

“From the Chicago Marathon, there is Emily Sisson who broke the American marathon record and she will be aiming to win,” she added.

“For New York, it’s hard to tell because it’s a really tough course. I believe it’s going to be faster than last year. If everything goes right, there will be a course record in New York this year probably.

“I’m hoping to be among those breaking the record. I don’t want to call myself a winner ahead of everything – I’m just going to pray and hope everything goes well.

“Top three is still going to be good but you go to a race to win, so that’s my biggest goal.”

As is honouring her late friend, whose memory Lagat will carry over the streets of New York.

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