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When the men’s steeplechase sets off in Tokyo tonight, leading the U.S. squad will be 31-year-old Hillary Bor. Bor is running in his second Olympics, with a legitimate shot at bringing home a medal. But he’s not the only world-class runner in the family — or the fastest.
In March, Emmanuel, Hillary’s older brother by a year and half, came within four seconds of setting an American indoor 5K record at 13:05, putting him #2 on the all-time U.S. indoor list. Emmanuel then finished 5th at the trials in the 5K, missing the team by and is poised to be a contender to break records and make the U.S. team next year for the World Championships in Eugene. For Hillary’s part, besides winning the U.S. steeplechase trials in June, this past May in Gateshead, England, he became the first U.S. Diamond League champion in the steeplechase since Olympic medalist Evan Jager.
“My success is more so because of my brother, we really really push each other every day. I don’t think I would be this level,” says Hillary. And they consider another brother, Julius, the one with the real talent.
The Bor family’s story begins in the rift valley of Kenya where the oldest six of seven siblings grew up in the running mecca of Eldoret, while the youngest, Hillary, went to live with his grand parents in Kaspabet.
“There wasn’t enough resources to cover for everybody and we had to send him there,” explains Emmanuel. “My first time wearing shoes was when I went to high school because it was a requirement.”
A Family Tradition
The Bors are members of the Kalenjin tribe, which has a reputation for producing remarkable runners. Among them are two uncles — Amos and Barnabas Korir — who both had successful professional running careers, beginning with scholarships to U.S. universities.
In a Kenyan collegiate education system where only 10% of athletes get a full scholarship, education past high school was far from certain. Fortunately, the boys’ uncles’ experience helped them bridge the gap.
Despite their family tradition, both brothers got their starts relatively late in life. After school, Emmanuel went to a training camp for three months. At the end of the camp, there was an all-comers meet where he won the 800 and 1500 fifteen, minutes apart, in front of a number of collegiate scouts.
Emmanuel chose the University of Alabama and exploded relatively quickly out of the gate which he credits to an increase in mileage in the university program. At Alabama, Emmanuel would win the SEC championship in the indoor mile, qualify for NCAAs three times, and qualify for the 2007 World University Games — all before his sophomore year.
When Hillary came to the States a year later in the summer of 2007, he had a more circuitous route. His uncle Barnabas had been an All-American at Iowa State, and helped the university recruit Hillary and sign him to a letter of intent. Hillary then planned to follow his brother to the University of Alabama but was unaware of the binding nature of the letter of intent and the complexity of the U.S. visa system. He stayed in Alabama for a semester before circumstances forced him to transfer, when his visa for Alabama didn’t hold. He also admits he was motivated to appease his Iowa State alumnus uncle.
In his first season of eligibility the spring of 2008, he showed great potential, winning the Arkansas Twilight indoor 1500m in 3:44.40.
Switch to Steeple
When the outdoor track season came, it was clear that Hillary would excel. He had competed successfully at both the long jump and pole vault back in his short high school career Kenya, and the combination of agility and running strength would make Bor a promising steeplechaser.
“If anyone could do it, then they would do it,” says Hillary Bor about his signature event. “You have to have experience [and] you have to be really comfortable going through the barriers. It’s more mental, and it’s more technical.”
Over the course of his freshman year with the Cyclones, he lowered his PR to 8:36.84 and took 4th at NCAA nationals. From then on, he never looked back, placing 2nd and 3rd the following two years.
A third brother, Julius, arrived in the United States to join his brothers in 2009. Julius was two years senior to Emmanuel and had attempted to run professionally back home.
“I told him ‘what happens if one day you were injured’ and how [with] so many successful runners in Kenya, you cannot maintain that on running alone,” says Emmanuel, who takes credit for convincing Julius to come to the U.S.
Julius went to community college and eventually joined Emmanuel at Alabama from 2009 to 2011 where he specialized in middle distance ranging from the 800 to 3000. Emmanuel meanwhile would continue earning accolades across the board, including an SEC cross country championship.
In the Army Now
For all their glory in college, neither brother found the support needed to continue running and fell off after graduation.
Emmanuel worked in a hospital in Alabama and enlisted in 2014 for the Army. By then he had quit running and gained a lot of weight.
“We thought this country has done so much for us, because I got so many degrees here,” says Emmanuel who double-majored in health sciences and biology and eventually got a master’s in public health.
Hillary ended his career on a poor race (12th at NCAAs) and decided running was a luxury. He moved to the Southwest and attended New Mexico State where he got a second master’s degree in business administration.
Wanting to stay in the country post-graduation, he followed his brothers into the military and was stationed at Fort Carson in Colorado in 2014. He found himself stationed in Julius’s unit, who had also signed up for the Army.
Emmanuel served at Fort Bliss in El Paso. He described his service as so busy, “I did not see the light of day.”
One day, he met a general at Fort Bliss who was impressed with his work ethic and asked Emmanuel if there was anything he could do to help him achieve his goals.
Emmanuel requested if he could get an hour of training so he could train for the Army 10 miler. Held annually in D.C., the Army 10-miler is one of the marquee events on the military running calendar that athletes in the Army are encouraged to train for and participate.
“The biggest problem with soldiers [within the physical training standards] is running the two-mile so running the 10-mile is [a way of] trying to encourage these soldiers that everything will be possible,” explained Emmanuel.
Hillary and Julius served in Fort Carson in Colorado where their running accolades were known to his unit. They got excused from the two-hour physical training session every morning to train for races.
Similarly, after learning about his running resume, Hillary’s commanding officer excused him from the physical training session that ran from 6:30 to 8:30 a.m. so that Hillary could run. Hillary made his debut in the Army 10-miler in 2014 and finished 7th.
The following year, Emmanuel, Hillary and Julius finished 5th, 9th, and 14th respectively, at the 2015 Army 10-miler. It was then that they came into contact with the World Class Army Program, but it would take time before they’d be able to join the team in Colorado Springs.
Their career trajectories would take a marked turn later that year when it was time to deploy soldiers from Fort Carson. In February of 2016, they were told one the unit would be deploy to Afghanistan. Because there was a rule that two brothers from the same unit were not allowed to be deployed at the same time, Julius volunteered to go to Afghanistan while Hillary stayed home to train.
“He was the best one of us,” says Hillary, who believes Julius could have made the 2016 U.S. team.
Instead, it was Hillary who became the family’s first Olympian, running the steeplechase in Rio. He ran the trials in an army uniform, and says he didn’t have any expectations of making the team.
“My goal was to make my unit look good,” says Hillary.
During the next Olympic cycle, Emmanuel and Julius emerged with a new level of dominance. They were both selected for the World Class Army Program in 2017. Julius briefly joined in 2018 but retired shortly after and is currently stationed in South Korea.
By 2018, Emmanuel started benefitting from the elite training at altitude, and got his 5K PR down to 13:20 (ranking him 6th nationally). Hillary won the US title in the steeplechase the next year and finished the season with a PR of 8:08 — in striking distance of medal range.
Then the pandemic hit and took a toll on the Bor’s training. The unit wasn’t allowed to train together due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Rather than rest, Emmanuel and Hillary got together with WCAP teammate Elkanah Kibet (a marathoner representing the U.S. at the 2019 World Championships) and decided to double down on training as a trio. They sought advice from their noted uncle, Amos Korir, who by now had been coaching world-class runners from his base in Kenya including Olympic marathoner Abel Kirui and four-time Boston Marathon champion Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot.
“We talked to my uncle Amos, and then we threw everything that we’ve been doing with the group and our own training into it,” says Emmanuel Bor.
They would do a Tuesday fartlek, a Friday tempo run, speed training on Saturdays and a long run on Sundays — at 5:30 pace. The trio would wok out their schedule of easy days to fit it within the 100- to 110-mile-a-week window.
As races kept getting canceled last summer, they resorted to doing their own time trials on a 10-mile loop in Colorado Springs.
A Season at the Top
As the 2021 race season began, Emmanuel immediately announced himself as a top contender. At a time trial in Virginia Beach on March 4th that was initially slated as an attempt for teammate Paul Chelimo to break Galen Rupp’s 13:01.26 American indoor 5K record, Emmanuel shocked the running community by dropping Chelimo at 3K and trouncing him by 12 seconds. Even more impressive, he was holding a 12:58 pace up to less than a mile remaining before fading off slightly in the last 800. His time of 13:05.60 was #2 all-time American indoors behind Galen Rupp’s 13:01, and 12th fastest in the world.
“My teammates knew I was really fit. I know that I’d done everything to me there. So the only challenge that I faced in that race was if I had really great pacers. If I went through the 3K a little slower, I could have run under 13,” says Emmanuel.
In May, he would stamp his ticket to the trials and get the Olympic standard in the 10,000m, running a 27:22.80 in a loaded field, beating eventual Olympians Joe Klecker and Morgan McDonald in the process.
Hillary notched a rare Diamond League win at the season opener in Gateshead against a number of sub-8:10 runners. The damp and windy conditions led to slow times across the board so he didn’t have much to show time-wise.
Meanwhile, Hillary’s only three rivals with World Champion experience either announced their retirement (Andy Bayer) or pulled out of the season due to injury (Stanley Kebeni, Evan Jager).
“It’s very dangerous when you’re the top guy. It’s really easy to just relax and think that’s gonna be easy, but I looked at the results of my competitors and everyone was running faster,” says Hillary. Although he was running it as a tune-up, he placed 3rd behind two new U.S. upstarts Mason Frelic and Isaac Updike in April.
One In, One Oh-so-Close
At the trials, Hillary controlled the pace and established separation with 800m to go to take his second U.S. title. But his job wasn’t done until his brother joined him.
“I remember watching the other 10k and I’m sure I was more nervous than him,” he recalls.
Emmanuel competed in both the 10K and the 5K. In the first event, the 10,000m, he finished 10th in a see-sawing frenzy that saw nearly everyone take the lead at some point and a pace roughly half a minute slower than the Olympic standard. Emmanual figured it could be anyone’s race and thought he had his best chance in the 5000m anyway.
He says he felt a little “flat” from racing the 10K earlier in the week, but winning against his teammate Paul Chelimo earlier in the year made him feel like anything was possible. Even during the race, he felt sure that he was going to make it up, until the last lap when he was dropped with a little over the 200m to go.
Looking back, Emmanuel says he was “too hungry” and overextended himself in scope and training.
“Because it came down to the last 150, I know I would have made it if I just rested and had done the 5000,” he says.
While he’s full of regrets, Emmanuel says he’s really proud of his year. While he has finished his season, he feels confident that he’ll have a come back next year.
“I have a lot of unfinished business. Bernard Lagat’s 12:53. I’m not gonna retire without getting that,” he says.
In the meantime, he feels just as confident in his brother’s chances to medal. In particular, Emmanuel feels that with the rounds of the Olympics, Hillary’s fitness will do a lot for him.
Hillary is also setting the bar higher in Tokyo.
“The last time I was there, I was going for the experience. This time it’s business,” he says.