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Hellen Obiri knows Ngong, Kenya, and Boulder, Colorado, are worlds apart, not only in distance, but also in vastly different cultures and many aspects of daily life.
In fulfilling a long-term goal of transplanting to Boulder later this spring, Obiri, one of the all-time greats of women’s running, will be moving 8,850 miles and 10 time zones away from her home in the Great Rift Valley southwest of the Kenya capital of Nairobi. To Obiri, it’s not the miles or the cultural differences that matter. She’s banking on what makes the two running meccas similar to help ease the stress of her global relocation and huge career shift.
At 32, she’s still among the world’s best, as evidenced by her silver medal in the 5,000-meter run at last summer’s Tokyo Olympics. She’s undergoing the move with her husband, Tom Nyaundi, and their 6-year-old, Tania, as part of her transition to the marathon and to provide her daughter with optimal educational opportunities and the chance to see the world from a different perspective.
As part of the move, Obiri has joined the Boulder-based On Athletics Club, the promising international racing team organized by Swiss running shoe brand On. Her transition to longer racing distances will be under the guidance of coach Dathan Ritzenhein.
“I’ve always wanted to live and train in the U.S.,” says Obiri, adding that she will retain her Kenyan citizenship and continue to race for her native flag. “I have been planning to move to the U.S. with my family for a few years, but due to the pandemic, it was delayed. I will miss Kenya, for sure, but it is not like I will never go back home. I hope my family and I can settle in, and I’m sure the people will make us feel very welcome.”
Obiri is one of the most decorated female track and field athletes of the past decade, having won 10 global medals in the 1500 meters, 3,000 meters, 5,000 meters, and cross-country since 2011. She’s a two-time world champion and two-time Olympic silver medalist at 5,000 meters and, based on her success at 10,000 meters and her initial forays to the half marathon, has considerable upside for the marathon.
“You never really know how someone will transition to the marathon; it can be different for different runners,” says Ritzenhein, 39, who helped On start the OAC in 2020 after retiring from a 16-year professional running career that took him to three Olympics. “But with her training load and intensity at which she trains, she’s not going to really have to change things. She already has the tools. She loves to race and she races a lot, and in the marathon, the big difference is that you’re racing less but putting more eggs into one basket.”
As for Obiri, she’s looking forward to training on soft dirt roads in a high-altitude environment similar to Ngong, working out with an elite-level training group and seeing a few familiar faces (including fellow Kenyan Edna Kiplagat and her family) to help smooth the transition. Kiplagat, 42, has lived in Boulder with her family for more than a decade and has used it as her training base that helped her capture marathon world championship titles in 2011 and 2013, as well as marathon wins in Boston, London, and New York.
If all goes well, Obiri will make her marathon debut in the fall, possibly at the New York City Marathon, although she might also compete in the 5,000 or 10,000 meters at the track and field world championships in July in Eugene, Oregon.
“I feel like the move up to the marathon is a natural progression,” Obiri says. “For sure, I want to win as many big marathons as possible. I have two Olympic Games silver medals and would like to get a gold.”
Obiri’s longtime coach and agent Ricky Simms wanted to help facilitate the transition, especially knowing Obiri’s Nike contract was expiring at the end of 2021. While several brands were interested, On, the OAC, and Ritzenhein won them over. While it’s a major move for Obiri, it’s also a notable coup for On that could pay dividends in many ways.
For On, it gives the OAC team added international pedigree as it segues into the marathon, and it offers the brand the opportunity to increase its stature as a running shoe company among sub-elite and recreational runners. Since its inception in 2010, On has continually improved its training shoes—Obiri says the On Cloudstratus is her go-to model so far—but it’s the high-level Cloudboom Echo marathon racing shoe that the brand wants to elevate and capitalize on.
“She’s going to be a huge validator of our road shoes, but it’s really just a great fit for the OAC,” says Steve DeKoker, global head of the OAC. “She was already planning to move to Boulder, so that wasn’t a pitch we had to make. She’s a once-in-a-lifetime talent, and having the chance to bring her in at a time when she’s transitioning to the marathon is a great opportunity for us.”
The only woman in history to win a world title in indoor track, outdoor track, and cross-country, Obiri is the latest and most impressive addition to the OAC roster. While team has made huge strides since its inception—including five OAC runners making it to the 2020 Olympics, some big wins, and a few individual national records—it’s been solely a track-focused team.
Alicia Monson, one of the original OAC runners, could be one of the biggest beneficiaries of Obiri’s experience, hard work, and training regimen. Monson, 23, who hails from Amery, Wisconsin, was a star at the University of Wisconsin two years ago, and is now she’s on the verge of breaking into the ranks of the world’s elite. Ritzenhein believes she, too, will one day blossom into a marathoner.
Monson got her first taste of international experience last summer when she earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team and finished 13th (31:21.36) in the 10,000 meters the Tokyo Games, nine places and 57 seconds behind fourth-place Obiri (30:24.27).
It’s not a fair comparison—yet. Ritzenhein believes Monson’s talent and tenacity are still a long way from being fully realized on the track. As for Monson, she’s thrilled with the opportunity for someone to push her on 18-mile long runs on Boulder’s rural back roads and up-tempo track workouts.
“She’s a world-class athlete and it will be really cool to learn from her,” Monson says. “It will be amazing to have the chance to watch as she transitions to the marathon and see how she does it, and see what that could look like for me in a couple of years.”
As she’s waiting to get her visa and related paperwork finalized, Obiri will remain in Kenya, likely through the spring, and will race two half marathons. She debuted at that distance last spring, and began 2022 with a dominating win at the Northern Ireland International Cross Country Race near Belfast in late January. Obiri also placed a closed second at the RAK Half Marathon on February 19 in the United Arab Emirates, lowering her PR to 1:04:22.
For the time being, Simms and Ritzenhein have been in touch continually this winter in anticipation of the changeover.
“Hellen could probably still keep running on the track for years, but with as well as she’s been running, this is the time to go to the marathon,” Ritzenhein says. “Honestly, some of the stuff she does in training, she could train with some of the guys on our team. She’s that good, so I think she’ll be a great athlete for Alicia to be able to learn from and our entire team to gain from training with her.”