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In Her Marathon Debut, Hellen Obiri Will Run to Win in New York

Hellen Obiri is one of the only women to have won world championships in outdoor track, indoor track and cross country and now she's moving up to the marathon distance in New York City.

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After earning a silver medal in the 10,000 meters at the World Athletics Championships in Eugene, Oregon, in July, Hellen Obiri was already looking toward the next big thing: making her 26.2-mile debut at the 2022 New York City Marathon.

Racing in New York was always her main goal for 2022, even though she made a late decision to compete on the track at the world championships. Immediately after her September 11 win at the Great North Run in northeast England, Obiri finally made her long-planned move from Ngong, Kenya to Boulder, Colorado, to start training with the On Athletics Club under three-time Olympian and coach Dathan Ritzenhein.

Obiri’s agent and former coach, Ricky Simms, worked with Ritzenhein to plan out her training for the Great North Run and the New York City Marathon as she made the move, and although she’s only been training in her new environment for nearly two months, she has proven to be adjusting nicely to the transition.

“Everyone has been very welcoming and the training environment is perfect; training is very similar to Kenya,” Obiri says. “I think it will be a good place for my daughter to grow up. The biggest challenge has been being away from my family, as I am missing them a lot. They have not been able to come as they do not yet have U.S. visas.”

So far, due to most of her teammates having been on vacation after the track season, Obiri, 32, has mainly trained with Ritzenhein, who either accompanies her on her training runs or leads her on a bike, and fellow countrywoman Edna Kiplagat, a two-time marathon world champion who has been living in Boulder for a decade and who will also be racing in New York.

“Every day, I show up and wonder how Hellen is going to amaze me that day–she is completely dialed for New York,” Ritzenhein says. “We’ve spent a lot of early mornings out there, and it’s been a great couple months of getting to know each other and trusting in this new process. It’s really amazing to me how talented and focused she is.”

Hellen Obiri
Hellen Obiri celebrates following the Women’s 10,000m Final on day two of the World Athletics Championships Oregon22 (Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

A Multifaceted Athlete

Obiri is one of the only women to have won world championships in outdoor track, indoor track and cross country. Among the 11 global championship medals she’s earned, she owns two world championship gold medals in the 5,000m (2017, 2019), another from the 3,000 at the 2012 indoor world championships and one more from the 2019 world cross country championships.

But the marathon has always been waiting in the wings. Given her speed, endurance and championship pedigree, Obiri seems to have the right qualities to be ever better over the longer distance, Ritzenhein says. After several weeks training in the U.S., he’s confident the challenging terrain Obiri has gotten used to in Kenya and now the rolling dirt roads north of Boulder will translate well to New York’s undulating course.

“Coming off the world championships this summer, we knew Hellen still had the wheels. But it had been a big increase in total running volume but also the volume and intensity of the long runs and workouts,” Ritzenhein says. “We tried to do some quality sessions on hilly terrain that mimics the course, and she has handled it all very well. I am very confident she will handle the course.”

Ritzenhein noted that Obiri will also likely eventually serve as a guide for fellow 10,000-meter runner Alicia Monson, who will likely make the move to the marathon within the next few years. The 24-year-old third-year pro placed 13th in the 10,000 at both the Olympics in 2021 and the World Athletics Championships in 2022.

“[Monson’s] track times are getting close, so hopefully the training with Hellen will be a bridge to her career on the roads in years,” Ritzenhein says. “Now that the team is back, [Obiri] will do some of the easy morning runs with them, but her workouts are still so much bigger than where they are in training.”

The Marathon Distance Beckons

After her solid 1:07:05 half marathon at the Great North Run, it’s no surprise that Obiri is exuding confidence as she approaches what’s expected to be a highly competitive field for her first go at the marathon distance. It was her fifth time competing in the half-marathon distance,  which she says she has grown very comfortable with. In February, she finished second in a half marathon in the United Arab Emirates in 1:04:22, which remains the No. 2 time in the world this year.

“I aim to win [in New York]—the time doesn’t matter,” Obiri says.

“It will be my first marathon, but I have prepared well so far and will give it my best shot. I am really looking forward to the race— I know the competition will be strong, but things have gone well this year and I hope New York will be the highlight.”

Obiri is one of the only women to have won world championships in outdoor track, indoor track and cross country. Among the 11 global championship medals she’s earned, she owns two world championship gold medals in the 5,000m (2017, 2019), another from the 3,000 at the 2012 indoor world championships and one more from the 2019 world cross country championships.

But the marathon has always been waiting in the wings. Given her speed, endurance and championship pedigree, Obiri seems to have the right qualities to be ever better over the longer distance.

“With Peres [Jepchirchir, the reigning 2020 Olympic and 2021 New York City Marathon champion] now out of the race, it definitely changes the landscape a little,” Ritzenhein adds. “But with multiple world championship medalists and last year’s podium finishers, it’s still such a strong field. The marathon debut should always be cautious early on, but there isn’t anything that I think [Obiri] can’t handle.”

Obiri was also eager to share her thoughts on transitioning from training and racing in shoes from Nike, her former sponsor, to the On Cloudboom Echo 3.

“The fact that I was able to transition seamlessly to the new racing shoes and feel very comfortable in them is credit to the designers and team at On,” she says. “I hope I can give them more podium finishes.”

Looking ahead after New York, Obiri plans to continue to focus on road racing in 2023, though she may still jump into some track races if she feels as though she can remain competitive. After the marathon, she’ll wind down with a return to Kenya for the holidays, followed by some winter cross country running before jumping back for marathon training for a to-be-decided spring race, Ritzenhein says.

“[Obiri] could honestly train with the men’s team for much of the long training,” he says. “She’s doing things which are really incredible, and it’s inspiring for them and me to see.”

As with many elite long-distance runners, Obiri is unsurprisingly also looking ahead to the 2024 Paris Olympics as she plans out her future schedule and sets goals for future accolades.

“I have already won the world championships, world cross country championships, world indoor championships, Commonwealth Games and African Championships,” she says. “But I only have silver medals from the Olympics, and I would love an Olympic Games gold.”