Sometimes, I daydream about being an professional runner. That dream is basically impossible for me to achieve at this point in my running career, but that does not stop me. Competing on a world stage, being able to run absurdly quick times–I am not the first nor the last runner to aspire to those things. And thankfully, there are a select few who are able to achieve those goals.

The amount of hard work and respect I have for elite runners is off the charts. That respect has only grown as I have attempted to replicate a small fraction of their accomplishments. I recently watched the Indoor World Track & Field Championships that just concluded in Portland, Oregon. I was in awe of most of the incredibly talented athletes who competed. Most of them.

But buried underneath the immense respect I felt for Matt Centrowitz, Ashton Eaton and Genzebe Dibaba, there was utter confusion. In the first heat of the 3000m run, alongside Ryan Hill and 18-year-old phenom Yomif Kejelcha (who would win the final on Sunday), there was 23-year-old Adilet Kyshtabekov of Kyrgyzstan.

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He quickly fell behind.

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He ran a time of 8:44.95 for 3000 meters in an IAAF World Championship meet. That’s about 4:43 mile pace.

For those of you who do not run or follow track, you would think that he ran a fast time that is well beyond your level of physical skill. For anyone acquainted with the sport, that is astoundingly slow for this level of competition. Kejelcha cruised home with a 7:51, nearly a full minute ahead of Kyshtabekov. Kyshtabekov finished a full 19 seconds behind the next-slowest finisher in the following heat.

Looking back through Indoor World Championship results, Kyshtabekov’s 8:44 was the slowest 3K attempt of any male athlete since Birmingham 2003, when Ajmal Amirov of Tajikistan ran a staggering 9:04.53 in the 3K. We can safely assume that this is one of the worst men’s performances in the recent history of the IAAF Indoor World Championships.

At this year’s New Balance Indoor Nationals, a meet that draws the best American high school athletes of the 2015-16 indoor season, Kyshtabekov’s converted two-mile time would have placed him around 37th or 38th among America’s best high school runners. The guy would have finished dead last in the NCAA Division I Championships, 16th in the Division II Championships, and 14th in Division III. It also would have barely won the Illinois Club Relays event that I participated in last month. This is a race that features college students who weren’t good enough/don’t have the time to run on a real college team. Kyshtabekov is basically a solid club runner. And he just ran in the first heat of the men’s 3000m at the Indoor World Championships.

Seriously, although it is quite impressive that he made it this far, Kyshtabekov’s effort makes no sense whatsoever. The outdoor World Championships and the Olympics are much more prestigious. Both events draw plenty of runners from obscure countries who use their free national wild-card entry that each country has to get into events. That means even if you go out and run a 4:30 in the 1500m (which would be a pretty standard time in the JV mile at a random New York high school weekend meet), like Ribeiro Pinto De Carvalho of Timor-Leste did in 2011, you still get to say you ran in the World Championships!

I should start registering to be a Kyrgyz or East Timorean runner…

Anyway, countries send representatives for national pride all the time. It’s actually very cool and adds to the global allure of these events. Some of them come from unbelievable backgrounds and are interesting and charming people. I’m sure Mr. Kyshtabekov is also interesting. After all, he has been running internationally for about three years now. But why wouldn’t he just save his time and money and just go for the Olympics rather than trying Indoor Worlds? If he’s trying to impress the Kyrgyz Olympic Staff, why would he think that running completely alone in the first heat of the 3K improve his chances of making the team?

That being said, the Indoor World Championships are the equivalent of the League Cup in English soccer. It’s prestigious, but definitely not the most prestigious event in the world. It’s been a while since a slow runner from an obscure country has entered in the 3000m. Kyshtabekov is basically unknown on Google, but the few records of his previous races show that he occasionally ran in Asia and Eastern Europe.

So why did he decide to go to Portland, Oregon and race in the Indoor World Championships, despite being significantly slower than the meet standards? His personal best in the 3K was only 8:29. He had no business being in this meet other than national and personal pride. But why not just register for the Olympics in the Summer? Why go to Portland and run a race that even professional runners don’t take too seriously?

I have no idea. Again, the guy is basically a mystery. He shows up on the NBC broadcast and the commentator says he’s from Kazakhstan. His Google results have no personal information. Assuming he flew from Kyrgyzstan to Portland, the round-trip flight would have cost him $1,629. Somehow, this guy either spent the money out of his own pocket, or convinced the Kyrgyz Athletic Board that it would be worth around $4,000 with food and lodging to send him to Portland and run the race. Alternatively, he could be working in America and has the time to run in international track competitions in his spare time. In that case, good on him for staying in such good shape.

I’d like to think this is some sort of conspiracy and that “Adilet Kyshtabekov” is a Russian spy who is using the cover of distance to spy on the United States. Kyrgyzstan was a former Soviet republic, after all. I’m sure Putin has old KGB ties there.

You can look at his athletic profile here. He appears to not have any specialties and will run every event from the 800m to the 10K. He does not run particularly well in any of the events, and yet his travels have taken him to China and the United States, both of which are Russian geopolitical rivals. He has also traveled to Qatar and South Korea, two rising commercial powers on either side of the vast Asian continent.

Perhaps he is a sleeper agent that is working right under our noses. Again, slower runners have generally avoided the Indoor World Championships in the past decade. It’s not like “Kyshtabekov” was going to get good competition. There was really no solid reason for him to come to Portland, and yet he was there. It’s actually an ingenious disguise. Nobody ever notices the slowest runner in a long-distance race. Trust me, I’ve been the slowest runner in a 3200m race, and the only time anyone maybe pays attention to you is while you are getting lapped.

By the way, Kyshtabekov did not even practice good running etiquette. The entire lead pack of runners had to pass him on the outside while lapping him in the closing stages of the race.

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Dude, get out of the way, you’re two laps down!

He also went out in a 67 because even undercover Russian spies run the first lap too quickly. Perhaps it’s part of his secret identity.

In reality, Adilet Kyshtabekov is probably just living out his dreams, and we should all applaud him for doing something that takes incredible physical skill and courage. Even if he decided to perform on an international stage rather than a smaller competition, his dedication is admirable. I am happy that he got a chance to be on international television. I am also slightly jealous, but then again, there is no way that I could have run faster than him, so who am I to talk?

Run on, Adilet. Make Kyrgyzstan proud.

(Cole Paxton contributed some research and jokes to this story.)



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