Hellen Obiri picks the most challenging cross country course in ages to take her gold medal. Stuart Weir wrote this piece on Hellen Obiri, an athlete that he has seen win some pretty impressive titles. While Stuart was not in Aarhus, this piece on one of his favorite athletes is most heartfelt.
Hellen Obiri – a great all-round runner
In 2017 Hellem Obiri won the Kenya Defence Forces Cross Country Championships. I asked her about it shortly afterwards. She replied: “I had two cross country races back in Kenya and I did well but I’m not used to doing cross country but am more focused on the summer”. Two years later the girl who was “not used to doing cross country” is the world champion! She completed the 10.24km course in Aarhus in 36:14., winning from two Ethiopians Dera Dida (36:16) and Letesenbet Gidey, in a race in which the top 14 finishers were from Kenya, Ethiopia or Uganda.
She said of her win, “It is really special. It was my debut IAAF World Cross Country Championships and my only chance to do it. I now don’t need to do any more cross country.” Commenting on how she tackled the climb up the Moesgaard Museum roof on each lap, she added: “I thought you must look down, as you don’t want to look up to see where you are going and at how difficult the hill is I knew it wasn’t going to be a test of speed, as it was a tough hill. It was all about mind games.”
Her win made her the first woman ever win senior world titles indoors, outdoors and at cross country. And to that you can add her versatility, winning global medals at 1500m, 3000m, 5000m and now 10.24km.
Her first global medal was the 3000m indoors in Istanbul in 2012, taking silver in the same event in Sopot, Poland two years later. I always think of Indoor Championships being for people from cold countries but despite being Kenyan, Hellen has been comfortable running indoors. She told me: “Personally I like running indoors but other Kenyan ladies do not like running indoors. In Kenya we do not have an indoor track perhaps – not in Africa, I think. 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. For me, it is about mental focus. The first time you run indoors it seems strange. Take the 3000m, outdoor it is 7 Â½ 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 no real difference from outdoors. You just need to focus”.
She took bronze at the world (outdoor) championships in Moscow in 2013 – behind Abeba Aregawi (Ethiopian born but running for Sweden) and Jenny Simpson.
In the 2016 Olympics she took silver. Almaz Ayana had won the 10000m gold in a world record time, beating Kenya’s Vivian Cheruiyot by fully 15 seconds. Ayana was a strong favorite for the 5000. But Kenyans, Cheruiyot, Obiri and Mercy Cherono had a plan. In the event Ayana had to settle for bronze with Cheruiyot first, Obiri second and Cherono fourth. Hellen said of her silver “Everyone thought Ayana was going to win and maybe break the world record. So the Kenyans were fighting for second and third. It was not expected for me to come second. At that stage I did not usually run 5000m. It was unbelievable for me to get a medal because I didn’t even expect to make the Kenyan team. But I had trained hard”.
Ayana led by 25 meters but then Cheruiyot and Obiri started to cut the gap and both overtook the Ethiopian. Cheruiyot won in 14:26.17 by three seconds from Obiri with Ayana almost 4 seconds behind her.
By the time of the 2017 World Championships in London, Cheruiyot had forsaken the track for the road and Obiri became World Champion at 5000m, again beating Ayana. She said of her win: “I was telling myself to go. I could see Ayana was not going so I thought, why not? I said, ‘go’. I was mentally strong so I knew I was capable. When I crossed the line I was extremely happy, and just wanted to celebrate. All my emotion came out. I wanted the 5000m gold a lot.”
When I asked her what her best distance was, she did not give a clear answer: “I cannot say. I do not want to do the longer distances so I will probably stay at 5000m but also run some 1500s”. Might she follow Vivian Cheruiyot into half-marathons and marathons? “Perhaps in the future but I have not yet achieved everything I want to on the track”.
Whatever direction her career takes, she has shown herself to be a world class athlete at different distances and on different surfaces.