Back in 1998, when Hellen Obiri was an 8-year old in Kenya, she watched on TV as countrywoman Edna Kiplagat took the bronze medal in the 3000 meters at the 1998 IAAF Junior World Track and Field Championships. Like many kids living in Kenya, Obiri was inspired by the success of her fellow Kenyans, who have been a major force in long-distance running since Kip Keino defeated American Jim Ryun in a classic 1500-meter showdown at the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games.
Now, 25 years later, Kiplagat, 43, is still racing at a world-class level in a remarkable career that includes two World Championship marathon gold medals and wins in the New York City, Boston and London marathons. Today Kiplagat, a resident of Longmont, will be honored with a golden laurel leaf crown as the 2021 Boston Marathon winner, her second victory there, after the woman finishing ahead of her two years ago tested positive for a banned substance.
“It has been a long wait,” Kiplagat said on Wednesday. “Of course it would be sweeter to be crowned champion on the race date, but the BAA (Boston Athletic Association) has made a nice awards celebration for me.”
The shoe company Puma, recognizing her appeal, consistency and longevity, recently signed Kiplagat to a new, long-term contract.
Obiri, 33, has earned her own championship laurels, taking Olympic silver medals in the 5000 meters at both the 2016 Rio de Janeiro and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics; she is also the only person to win indoor, outdoor and cross country World Championships. Obiri, now living in Boulder with her family and part of the On Athletic Club, is among the favorites for Boston, along with Kiplagat and Ethiopians Amana Beriso and Gotytom Gebreslase.
“Edna is still running, after all those other girls (in the 1998 Junior Worlds) retired,” Obiri said last week at the On Athletic Club’s Gunbarrel clubhouse. One reason for leaving Kenya and relocating to Boulder? The presence of Kiplagat, a quiet and dignified wife, mom and marathoner.
“I did not want to be lonely, and Edna said Boulder is a very nice place to train,” Obiri said. “It’s my new home, and I am happy here. The team is so supportive, like a family, and the coach is always there for me.”
Said Kiplagat, “Hellen has been running so well on the track and now in road races. She is a good competitor. I told her Boulder is such a good environment for training, and also that we have so many good athletes here that the atmosphere is great for all of us. And a lot of support from local people.”
Obiri has been training well in her new home. Last month, she won the NYC half marathon, a win that convinced her OAC coach, former University of Colorado great Dathan Ritzenehin, to enter her in Boston. In addition to running more mileage under “Ritz,” including a recent 25-miler at 2:25 marathon pace where she was paced by On 10,000 meter Olympian Joe Klecker, she has changed her mental preparation.
“Be patient, patient, patient,” Obiri said of what she learned from her marathon debut at New York City last fall, where she placed sixth in 2:25:49, hitting the wall after running with the leaders much of the race. New York was, said Ritzenhein, “a very good learning experience.”
Obiri’s take? “It was terrible,” she recalled, shaking her head and still recoiling from the memory of struggling through those final miles in Central Park. “If this is the marathon, then no,” she recalls thinking at the time.
Obiri’s new-found marathon patience has been learned in part from Kiplagat, the paradigm of the smart and savvy racer. “Edna likes to run from the back,” Obiri said. “She has a lot of experience (Boston will be her 27th marathon), so she knows how to race. The marathon is not only the training, but the mental focus. I’m ready for it.”
So is Kiplagat. After traveling nearly 30 hours from Kenya, where she visited family and put in her final pre-Boston training away from the Boulder winter, she arrived in Boston on Wednesday, and said, “I am feeling good for Monday, because I have prepared well. And I am always excited to race here.”