This is Stuart Weir’s homage to Hellen Obiri, who won 8 of her 9 races this year, including the Boston and NYC Marathon. Hellen Obiri has had a long and wonderful career. Fans need to know that Hellen has earned her accolades, and Stuart lets us know that in a long career, there are ups and downs.

Hellen Obiri won both Boston and NYC this year, the first time a women marathoner has done this since 1989 (it was Ingrid Kristiansen). 

Thoughts on Hellen Obiri

Hellen Obiri’s recent win in the New York marathon was her second major marathon win following her triumph at Boston.  She moved to marathon after an illustrious track career, winning the World Championship at 5000m in 2017 and 2019, as well as taking silver at 10 K in 2022 and bronze at 1500 in Moscow 2013.  She took Olympic silver at 5000 in 2016 and was second and fourth in the two distance races at the Tokyo Olympics.  Add to that gold and silver at World Indoor 3000, being Diamond League champion, and a host of individual Diamond League victories, and you get the measure of this magnificent athlete.

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

Your correspondent was privileged to be present in the stadium to see all her championship performances and also to talk to her on many occasions.

Like so many Kenyans, Hellen started running at a young age and could have become a sprinter: “I started running in primary school, and my home was so far from school that I started running from my home to school and school to home.  When I was in Form 1, I moved to Nairobi and started running, but not like I am running now.  In high school, I was running 200 and 400”.  

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)

She started training seriously in 2010 and was selected for the World Championship in 2011.  She ran a PR (4:07.59) in the semi-final but fell in the final.

Her breakthrough came at the World Indoors in Istanbul in 2012, when she won the 3000m – despite having virtually no experience of running indoors, as she explained: “I like running indoors but – as you can see – other Kenyan ladies do not like running indoors.  In Kenya, we do not have an indoor track, perhaps not in Africa.  So it is very difficult.  Some people think if you run indoors you will just get injured, but I have been running indoors for five years without injury.  But the problem is without indoor tracks in Kenya, you cannot prepare well.  But for me, like running outdoors, it is about mental focus. The first time you run indoors it seems 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.” 

In 2012, she qualified for the London Olympics, but it was a repeat of the previous year when she reached the final but had a fall on the final lap.  That was a particular disappointment because her own assessment was: “I was capable of getting the medal because I was in very good shape.”  Her first outdoor medal came the following year, in the 1500m at the Moscow 2013 World Championships, in which came third.

Hellen Obiri, Zurich 2018 Weltklasse, photo by Diamond League

In 2016, she moved up to 5000 and was delighted to get the Olympic silver medal because she was not even confident of making the Kenyan team at a longer distance.  The Olympic final was an epic race.  After Ethiopian Almaz Ayana had won the 10,000m in a world record time she was a strong favorite for the Olympic 5K to complete the double. Three Kenyans ran as a team, with Vivian Cheruiyot winning, Hellen second, and Mercy Cherono fourth.  Hellen recalled the race: “Ayana was there, and everyone thought she was going to win and maybe break the world record and that the Kenyans were fighting for second and third places.  So it was not expected for me to come second and Vivian to win”.

I remember asking her in 2017 how she saw her future. She replied that she would focus on 5K and some 1500s. She dismissed road running at that point “because I have not yet achieved everything I want to on the track”.

Hellen Obiri wins the 127 Boston Marathon. Hellen was last elite women to enter field, photo by Star Gazer Pix.

She has proved herself as an outstanding all-round athlete, having won World Championship medals at 1500, 5000, and 10,000, Olympic medals at 5k, a World Indoor gold at 3000, and the 2019 World Cross-country title, as well as the marathon titles.  She interrupted her career to have a daughter in 2015.

A personal story to finish.  Once, at the Birmingham Diamond League, I went to the hotel gym and found myself running on the next treadmill to Hellen.  The next morning, I +- went to so did she.  After that, she started calling me your training partner!  When at the Doha Diamond League the following year, I entered the gym and saw her, we both had a big smile.  A great athlete and a lovely person.

Letensebet Gidey, Hellen Obiri, TCS New York Marathon
New York, New York, USA
November 5, 2023, photo by Kevin Morris