With four laps to go in the 10,000-meter run, Kieran Tuntivate knew he was onto something special. So did the announcers watching.
“28:45 [personal] best. That’s the national record in Thailand. He is going to rip that thing apart.”
They were still struggling to pronounce the last name of the Thai-American upstart, a 24-year-old Harvard graduate who lacked the pedigree of other runners in the pack. But they could see it clearly: At the pace he was running, Kieran was going to qualify for the Olympics.
Minutes later, he did just that, booking his ticket to Tokyo with a blistering, record-shattering time of 27:17.14 – comfortably under the Olympic qualifying standard of 27:30.
“It was definitely a surprise,” Kieran said of his run that night at The Ten, an exclusive race held in California in February. “But maybe not as much to me as someone looking at it from the outside.”
On Friday, Kieran will look to surprise again as he becomes the first Thai athlete to compete in the 10,000-meter run at the Olympics.
Before he burst onto the scene at The Ten, Kieran was best known for being shoeless.
Just 300 meters into a 3,000-meter run at the Ivy League Indoor Track and Field Championships in 2020, he was clipped in the heel by another runner and lost his left shoe. He won the race anyway. Despite “turning his foot into ground beef,” he went back to the track the following morning and won the 5,000-meter run.
For as much viral fame as that brought him, it didn’t establish him as the next Prefontaine.
“Coming out of college, I wanted to run professionally. I didn’t know if I could, just because I wasn’t winning titles in the NCAA system,” Kieran recently told me over Zoom. But Jerry Schumacher, the head coach of the prestigious, Nike-backed Bowerman Track Club, saw something in him. He was invited to join the team in Portland, Oregon.
The Bowerman team is stacked with household names in the American distance running community, like Matt Centrowitz, the 2016 Olympic gold medalist in the 1,500-meter run. Armchair commentators weren’t sure Kieran belonged. On Let’s Run, a running-focused forum notorious for its cynicism and trolling, one thread is titled: How is Kieran Tuntivate on Bowerman TC?
He silenced the doubters in February.
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Kieran, born to a Thai father and American mother, now ranks fourth all-time among Asian runners in the 10,000-meter run. By any measure, he might be Thailand’s most promising long-distance runner ever.
“I knew a big jump was in store. I hadn’t raced the 10k seriously since 2019… because of COVID,” he said of his performance. “I was hoping [to finish] maybe in the 27:30 range, and then everything just came together. I think perfect pacing conditions put me over the edge.”
Training with the Bowerman group has brought out the best in Kieran. Its notoriously grueling workouts and friendly competition have pushed him to new heights. Often literally, as the group trains for stretches at a time at high altitude in Utah and Arizona.
“A lot of the workouts are insanely difficult. When we go to [high] altitude, nothing changes. We’re expected to hit the same splits. That’s when it gets really crazy,” he said. “This is a great situation as a professional.”
Kieran came of age in the United States, sharpening his skills in the country’s fiercely competitive landscape, where the talent pool goes so deep that even a runner of his caliber can get overlooked. But it’s also where top runners can enjoy elite-level coaching, high-dollar sponsorships, and access to some of the world’s best places to train.
Thailand, on the other hand, has never had a strong track and field presence. It lacks world-class facilities, financial support is hard to come by, and the subtropical conditions take a heavy toll on runners.
Despite the disadvantages, Kieran has always wanted to represent Thailand internationally. “It’s where I first went to school and made all of my friends. It was the first place I considered home,” he explained. “I want to see the sport expand in Thailand, and I want to be a part of it. Not just to represent the growing running scene, but also the competitive side of running.”
Making a mark
While many in Thailand associate running with Artiwara “Toon” Kongmalai, lead singer in the rock band Bodyslam, who was billed as “just what Thailand needs” for his cross-country odyssey to raise money for hospitals, Kieran’s name increasingly comes up in local running circles.
After his wins in the 5,000-meter and 10,000-meter runs at the 2019 SEA Games, he began appearing on Thai running websites like Wing Nai Dee. Many in my own running groups began following him after his gutsy shoeless race, his 3:57 mile last August, or his 13:42 5,000-meter run in May — a comparatively lesser but no less elite time that he admits came “during a deep training block… I was pretty exhausted.”
Making a name for himself isn’t the endgame, though. Whether it’s through outreach or performances on the global stage, he hopes to inspire a new generation of Thai runners.
“I think the only thing holding back top runners in Thailand is competition from other elites. More depth. More runners showing up. But I think that comes with time, making the sport more popular,” he explained. “I feel like I can actually make a difference in Thailand.”
For now, it’s all eyes on Tokyo. While he realizes the same conditions that propelled him to a breakthrough in February — the cool California air, the even pacing — aren’t going to be replicated at the Olympics, he isn’t discouraged.
“It’s just get out there and race and give it my all and see what happens,” he says. “Just knowing who’s in it and how they race… it’s going to be one of the hardest 10k [runs] I think I’ll ever do. [But as] someone on the team once told me: ‘Don’t put any limits on yourself.’”
The men’s 10,000-meter run at the Tokyo Olympics takes place at 6:30pm local time on Friday, July 30. Here’s how to tune in to the action.