Helen Obiri: A missile on track, a soldier off track

Kenya's Hellen Onsando Obiri reacts after competing in the women's 3,000m during the 2017 IAAF Birmingham Diamond League athletics meeting at Alexander Stadium in Birmingham on August 20, 2017. [Photo: AFP]

It was 5am and the usually bustling city of Doha, Qatar, was pretty much asleep. The night sounds reaching the small room in the magnificent hotel were nothing more than dull thuds from the streets below. In the rooms along the long hallway, adrenaline fuelled and nervous world class athletes were getting ready for the run of their lives. The IAAF Diamond League.  The lithe 29-year-old woman asleep in one of the rooms stirred in her bed and opened her eyes.

She could have sunk deeper in the covers hadn’t she been very aware that she was waking up to probably one of the most important days of her life. She quickly got off the bed and stretched languidly, casting a quick glance outside to get a hint of what the day promised. Sunny day or wet dreary day? She couldn’t tell. And it didn’t matter anyway. Her race was at night. At 8pm. And she was ready for whatever it brought. She was made for running after all. This time she wanted a gold medal. Nothing less. To add to her other five back home in faraway Kenya.

Just like almost every other day in her life, Helen Obiri donned her running gear, laced up and went out for a morning run. Thirty minutes later, she was back in the hotel room, sipping her black tea and chowing down two slices of bread, some fruits and afterwards, a glass of juice. And then, not wanting to expend her energy, whiled away the rest of the day just lying flat on her bed, wrapped in her thoughts as she watched the clock tick.

At 6pm, just two hours to the big 3,000 metre race, she got onto the field, jogged for 20 minutes and stretched for another 10 minutes. It was crucial to warm up the muscles. Nothing worse than crampy limps in a competition.

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They were finally asked to go to the call room – where all athletes meet before the race, to ensure they get to the field on time. A short briefing later, they were shepherded to the track, where all Obiri needed was 10 minutes of warm up before it was all systems go.  

Show time

“I had learnt my lesson from my 2012 Olympics. I wasn’t going to be trapped in the inside lane (lane 1).” 

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She was self-assured; her body was in tip top condition from the grueling training she did.

“I had trained very well and my body was feeling great, so I was confident,” she says.

She sized up her opponents and when the gun went off, she was off, among the crowd. “Getting trapped in the inner lane makes it very difficult to get out when you need to take the lead. In 2012 I fell while attempting to do that, ending up number 12. It was painful but I don’t dwell on it since I could not change it,” she says.

Not this time though. Her mind was set on winning, and making good time. And so she went for it, and after an exciting, goose bump-inducing run, she outpaced Ethiopia’s Genzebe Dibaba and won with a time of 8:25.60. The commentator said it was the fastest time of the year.

“I felt so good. You always feel great after you win a race and I was happy because my body also felt great and my training had paid off,” she says, smiling in that demure way of a woman unimpressed by her successes.  

We are having this tête-à-tête seated on a cold slab on a cool Friday morning at the Vapor Ministries training camp in Ngong where she is training for another race. A race that is happening (or already happened) as you read this. She unassumingly wipes off the tiny drops of sweat dotting her face with her forearm. A few minutes earlier, I had seen her run at top speed on the dusty track with a testosterone-laden pack. During training, she runs with men. Why, I prod.

“Men are naturally faster than women, so when you train with them it pushes you to the maximum. When I do that it makes me enjoy the pace when I compete against women.”

Train like a machine

There is no time to revel in her win a weekend ago. Not when you are the kind of athlete that she is. And gearing for another race soon. “You get the gold; you come back and train for the next one. And this, she explains requires discipline. One that probably stems from her long-running career as a member of Kenya’s Defence Forces.

From where we stand, I spy her husband Tom Nyaundi watching her. No, he is assessing her. Watching for signs of physical weakness in her form. If he detects one, they will discuss it and work on it tomorrow. He seems to approve of her form because he saunters off to other athletes. He is also a soldier like her, and her personal administrator cum coach, meaning he ensures she adheres to the training guide and schedule her London coach sends. And a childhood sweetheart turned husband in 2012 with whom they now have a beautiful four-year-old girl, Tania.

“We grew up together in Nyanguso, Kisii,” she says with a proud possessive gleam in her eyes as her glance washes over him.

Together, they look like naughty teenagers as they giggle over shared experiences and inside jokes I am obviously not privy to.

“I may seem career centred but my family comes first. My career will end but motherhood is a lifetime career. Maybe we shall have another child someday, if God wills,” she says.

Whenever she is out of the country, Tom stays behind with Tania.

Pressure to win

Helen has a tiny frame, with her best form being 49 or 50kg. Currently she weighs 49. Seems little, but her short frame makes it appear well balanced. Moreover, she has had to work hard at keeping it there. After having her child four years ago, she went up to 72 kg. And shaking it off was a tough affair. “It was very hard. All I wanted to do was sleep. I took a one-and-a-half-year break. And trained harder than I ever have.

Having won gold six times now, (seven if she wins today’s race), It may be difficult to stay at the top, but she has lots of inspiration to draw from.

“Knowing how we struggled growing up makes me work harder, to do better for my family. I invest for my child, with my husband’s advice. I can’t say how much a gold medal fetches but it is good money. I invest because I don’t want Tania to grow up and wonder what my being a champion ever did for her. That would pain me. I want her to comfortably pursue whatever dream she wants to.”

Her main goal right now is to open a training camp in Kisii, her home county, to enable more people from there to become elite athletes like she did. And of course, win more gold. She plans to run until the day her body gives in, which she hopes will not be soon.

“I want to go higher. I will be defending my title next weekend at the 10km Great Manchester Run in the UK. Maybe that will be my next gold. Maybe I will even break the record!”

She says of today’s race. Guess we now know how that went.

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