Didn’t my training partner do well!

Hellen Obiri is one of the most versatile and consistent distance runners of all time.  The winner of the 2023 Boston Marathon is also the former winner of the World Cross Country Championship (2019).  She is a two-time Olympic silver medalist, a four-time World Championship medalist, twice a World Indoor medalist, and a 2018 Commonwealth Games champion – not to mention the gold medalist in the 4 by 1500 at the world relays!  You could add 17 individual Diamond League victories and two overall Diamond Victories and coping with a career break when her daughter was born. She has won track races at 1500, 3000, 5000, and 10,000 before moving up to the marathon.  Your correspondent was privileged to be in the stadium to see her win her nine championship medals – in Istanbul, Moscow, Sopot, Poland, Rio, London, Gold Coast Australia, Doha, Tokyo, and Eugene, USA.

Hellen Obiri takes WA Cross Country, 2018, photo by World Athletics.

Like so many Kenyans, Hellen started running at an early age – at elementary school and to and from school.    In high school, she was running but curiously, mainly at 200 and 400.   In 2011 she made the Kenyan team for the World Championships in Korea in the 1500 meters, running well until falling in the final. [10th in final 4:22.67 after 4:07.59 PB heat and 4:08.93 SF]

She sees 2012 as her breakthrough year, winning the World Indoors 3000m when she was not confident: “I was not sure I was going to win because I was new and it was my first big race”.  

LONDON, ENGLAND – AUGUST 13: Hellen Onsando Obiri of Kenya crosses the finish line to win gold in the Women’s 5000 meters final during day ten of the 16th IAAF World Athletics Championships London 2017 at The London Stadium on August 13, 2017, in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images for IAAF)

Living in a cold country, I always find it strange to see Jamaicans and Kenyans running indoors, but Hellen explained her approach: “Personally, I like running indoors, but some other Kenyan ladies do not.  We do not have an indoor track in Kenya – perhaps not in Africa.  So it is very difficult to practice.  Some people think you will just get injured if you run indoors, but I have been running indoors for years without injury.  But the problem is that you cannot prepare well without indoor tracks in Kenya

World Athletics Championships
Eugene, Oregon, USA
July15-26, 2022

.  But for me, like running outdoors, it is about mental focus. The first time you run indoors, the shorter laps seem strange.  Take the 3000 outdoor it is 7 ½ laps, but indoors, you have to do 15 laps, so it is a big difference if you’re not used to it.  But I have come to see indoors as 200, 200, 200, so there is no real difference from outdoors.  You just need to focus”.

 

The 2012 Olympics ended in disappointment when she finished 12th: “It was my first Olympics, and I was in good form, but I did not perform well.  Same as 2011, I fell in the final with 300m to go.  I was capable of getting the medal because I was in very good shape”. 

She did get on the podium at the Moscow 2013 World Championships: “That was my first outdoor medal.  I was in very good shape and did my calculations well.  I was very happy as I had started progressing at that level”.  She was again on the podium at the 2014 World Indoors in Sopot: “I was second.  I was defending champion from 2012 but in 2014, I lost to Dibaba.  That year, Dibaba had broken the world record, so I was satisfied to be number two.  Dibaba was very strong”. 

Hellen Obiri takes it, 127th Boston Marathon
April 17, 2023, photo by Kevin Morris

In 2016, she returned to competition following the birth of her daughter.  She told me that, given the strength of Kenyan middle-distance running, she was not confident of making the Olympic team let alone getting a medal. She recalls it was a memorable race: “At that stage, I didn’t usually run 5000.  In 2016 I had run only the Kenyan trials and one other 5000 before Rio.  So it was unbelievable for me to get a medal because I didn’t even expect to make the Kenyan team.  I had trained hard, but it was unbelievable for me”.  

It was an exciting race, with 10k gold medallist Almaz Ayana (Ethiopia), a big favorite going into the race.  As Hellen recalls, “everyone thought Ayana was going to win and maybe break the world record and that everyone else was fighting for second and third,” but three Kenyans, Hellen, Vivian Cheruiyot and Mercy Cherono, ran together, and the race finished:

1 Cheruiyot 14:26.17

2 Obiri 14:29.77

3 Ayana 14:33.59

Hellen’s time was a PR

She won the world title in 2017 in London with Ayana second: “I was telling myself to go. I could see Ayana was not going, so I thought, why not? So I said, ‘go’. I am mentally strong, so I knew I was capable. I was extremely happy when I crossed the line and just wanted to celebrate. All my emotions came out. I wanted the 5000m gold a lot”.

Will the 5000m be a replay of the 10,000m? World Athletics Championships
Eugene, Oregon, USA
July 15-26, 2022, photo by Kevin Morris

In 2019 (Doha) she retained her world 5000 title, commenting: “It was not easy to run a championship record without pacemakers. But I felt the energy from the crowd and stayed focused. I just told my coach to let me focus on 5K, and I will do my best. It was a long season, the cross-country events, the Diamond Leagues, then the World Championship:

 In Tokyo 2021, like Rio five years previous, she took the Olympic 5000m silver:

“To be No.2 is quite amazing because it is a big achievement. “The race was slow; nobody wanted to go in front. I know that Sifan is good over the final 400m, and I tried to hold her, but I could do nothing. I tried my best. I am so happy because I didn’t expect the Olympics to happen because of the pandemic. Last year I was in very good shape, but I was 80% this year.”

When your traiining partner wins the 127th Boston Marathon
April 17, 2023, photo by Kevin Morris

I remember asking her a few years back if we would see her running marathons.  She replied: “I have not yet achieved everything I want to on the track yet, but perhaps in the future”.  When the time came – Boston 2023 – she was ready to continue her amazing career.

And finally, just to explain.  About 10 years ago, at a Birmingham Diamond League, I went to the gym one evening.  Hellen was on the treadmill next to me!  The next morning I decided to do another session before breakfast, and yes, she was on the next treadmill again!  When it happened for a third time – in Doha – we decided to call each other “training partners”.  My career has not been quite as successful as hers!

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