Hellen Obiri — the power of what if

“When you see someone running so well you admire them. So you think to yourself, ‘What do I need to do to perform like them?‘”

— Hellen Obiri

There tends to be a prerequisite quality among those who succeed in sport — drive. To be driven is more than determination. An unrelenting need to keep moving forward. To resist stagnation through evolution. Experiencing a sensation of discomfort in the present because of a desire to be better in the future, or to win at something else. An internal voice that champions a restlessness to achieve more. 

It’s not that Hellen Obiri reinvents herself, it’s that her athletic gift has furnished her with the ability to believe in her own potential. To question — what if I try another distance? While many athletes possess drive, few have the genetic dexterity that could enable them to be competitive at almost every distance from 200 meters up to the marathon.

Hellen would toy with her friends. “When I moved from 800 meters to 1500 meters I would tell my friends, ‘I am yet to find my event’. And when I moved from the 1500 meters to the 5000 meters they would say ‘now you have got your event’, and I would tell them, ’Not yet.’” The theme continued up to the marathon, a destination she now feels comfortable at. At her second attempt running the distance, Hellen won the most sought after of them all — the Boston Marathon — and succeeded again a year later. 

There’s an element of athlete-to-athlete banter, but Hellen delivers the word ‘Yet’ with such a purposeful undertone. She means it. It reinforces her forward-thinking mindset and a will to be a better athlete. As athletes, we all have a dream that we can reach — maybe exceed — our potential, and perhaps Hellen is one of the truest interpretations of this relatable, self-imposed journey. What if I don’t try, or, how good could I be if I do?

The region where Hellen grew up in Kenya didn’t have the depth of sporting knowledge that would naturally nurture a future world champion. In the absence of athletic mentorship, it was her parents, both farmers, who were the backbone of support, enabling the time, space, and guidance to train effectively for a career in running.

Balancing education, housework, and training was always a challenge but, in recognition of her talent, the most important thing was to at least try and make everything possible. Being bold enough to step up into the cross-country arena, with little preparation, again saw Hellen make big strides as an athlete and was further affirmation of her potential. “When you’re top-20 in the Kenyan cross country, you must be a very good athlete. That was the moment I realised I could focus on longer events.”

Hellen talks about her medals — the Olympics, the world championships, the marathons. The pride that she feels when looking at them is palpable, even when talking across many timezones, each holding a special snapshot of the experience that has shaped her. “This represents my work. Medals can’t go away. I can tell my grandchildren that I won Boston Marathon, and here, this is my medal.” It’s a tangible tool to influence the next generation.

It’s hard for an athlete to say which race — which medal — means the most. But Hellen recalls winning her first outdoor gold in the 5,000 meters at the London World Championships as a particularly valuable memory. Buoyed by knowing that people were watching — friends, family, and supporters — it was a moment of realisation. Reflecting on that feeling of winning and what it meant moving forward, Hellen describes it as excitement. “You have to work extra hard now — you can’t go back. You have to focus on performing well in the next races. And when I’m down, I can always rewatch that race.”

Even now, at 34, Hellen’s family are never far from her thoughts when racing, acknowledging the roots of her career. “When I know that my parents are watching, something comes into my mind, that I don’t want to let my parents down. Let me work extra hard to make them happy.” It’s an important sub-note to the London World Championships that it’s not simply the rawness of her performance or the unfolding in-race drama that are treasured memories. There’s fulfillment in knowing that her performance made others feel good too. Regardless of our athletic level, we can all relate to that emotional connection.

Hellen has a wealth of experience. Her many finals and race wins enable her to pick and choose moments that are self-edited into a motivational mental showreel that can be replayed during training. It’s a visualization technique formed from real-life experiences — no guesswork. Even thousands of miles apart, the smile in her voice is detectable down the line. She talks with enthusiasm, imagining the possible real-life prospect, “It’s 400 meters to go in the Olympics and we are four athletes together. What do I need to do to beat them?”

Perhaps it’s influence from Hellen’s military experience or perhaps it’s her natural competitive spirit, but her approach is robust and thorough. Her training and racing are intertwined, not just physically re-enacting the race stress, but also mentally. ”The tough moments in training, they sharpen my mind to focus on the same moments in racing. Because there is no easy race and I have to combat the pain in training so that I can perform well.”

“Losing the race is also important.” When you strive for victory there’s value in making time to reflect on your loses. It’s a process that Hellen incorporates into her preparation for the big stages. “I need to study my mistakes. To see, where is my weakness, what can I do to improve my weakness, or what can I do to improve from the race to get into the top form?” Those with drive are not content with going through the motions to get from A to B. Like Hellen, they study and they question.

Special thanks to Hellen Obiri for her time.

Words by Ross Lovell, Photos by Colin Wong