They say a good way to judge someone’s character is to look at those around them, and when it comes to athletics, the best gauge of an athlete’s ambition is often who they choose to train with.
For Hellen Obiri, who shredded a world-class 5000m field at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Rome on Thursday night, sailing to a Kenyan record of 14:18.37, her choice speaks volumes.
“I train with men,” she says. “We have a lot of groups in Kenya, but I like to train with men because they’re good to push hard.”
It’s as much out of necessity as choice, given the 27-year-old has now ascended to a level where few can draw breath, which was made clear on Thursday night in the Stadio Olimpico.
The race had been billed, once again, as a world record attempt by Genzebe Dibaba, but as it came to crunch-time, when Obiri asked the pertinent question shortly before 3000 metres, the Ethiopian had no answer.
On the build-up to the race, Obiri’s coach Ricky Simms – who is also her manager – had cautioned his protegee against an early move, given the obvious ability of Dibaba, who had requested a sub-14-minute pace in the days before.
“I thought Genzebe would push it forward,” said Obiri, “but when she did not, I tried to push it myself.”
'Nobody can beat me'
After reaching 3000 metres in 8:38.3, Obiri dropped the hammer with a 64.8-second lap, which proved an immediate knockout punch to her weary rivals. Thereafter it was a solo run to the finish, the Kenyan squeezing every ounce of energy from her muscles as she sprinted to the line in a world-leading 14:18.37.
“When I came to this race, I told myself that nobody can beat me,” said Obiri, who took two seconds off the previous Kenyan record of 14:20.87.
In many ways, the race was an arrival of sorts for Obiri, who despite having a handful of global medals had so often existed in the shadows of either Dibaba or Vivian Cheruiyot, the previous national record-holder who is Obiri’s close friend and long-time training partner.
Indeed it was through working together with Cheruiyot, who is also coached and managed by Simms, that Obiri earned an Olympic silver medal last year, the Kenyan pair outsmarting and outlasting Ethiopia’s Almaz Ayana in a memorable 5000m final in Rio.
To Obiri, who had returned to running after missing all of 2015 through pregnancy, it felt as good as gold. “It was my first 5000m at a championships and I’m proud of it,” she said. “But this year I’m running the race well.”
That’s quite the understatement, given Obiri’s mark moves her to number five all-time over 5000m and makes her the first non-Ethiopian to run faster than 14:20.
The key, she believes, has been consistency. “When I train well, with no injuries, I know I can do well,” she says.
Like most Kenyan athletes, Obiri’s day typically starts before dawn, setting out on dusty roads for a 10km run. Her baby girl, Tanya, is just two years old, but already well aware of her mother’s exploits. Her first question in the morning, Obiri recalls, “Mommy, are you going running?”
Later in the day Obiri completes either a second easy run or a harder workout and, she says, “a lot of exercises”.
Sights set firmly on London
Being coached remotely requires a certain level of independence, but Obiri has full trust in Simms. “Ricky is a good coach, he has experience,” she says. “He has managed many athletes like Mo Farah, Usain Bolt, so I know I’m in safe hands.”
Next on the agenda is the Kenyan Trials on 22 June, where Obiri will contest the 5000m, her sole focus for the IAAF World Championships London 2017. Then, after another block of training, she reckons Monaco will be her next stop on the IAAF Diamond League circuit.
Given her proximity to the world record, held by Tirunesh Dibaba at 14:11.15, it seems obvious to ask Obiri if feels capable of surpassing it.
“No,” she says with a laugh. “Not for now.”
Instead, her attention is on London. With Cheruiyot having moved to the marathon, and Ayana unseen since last summer, Obiri appears to have a golden opportunity looming. After becoming the fastest ever Kenyan over 5000m, she’s well aware of the responsibility to bring that title back home.
“Maybe we will do tactics like the Ethiopians, to work together,” she says. “I am trying to work on my speed and my finishing kick.”
As the 2013 world bronze medallist over 1500m, she should prove a tough riddle to solve for any of her competitors in London, and that’s just how she wants it.
“The goal is to win at the World Championships,” she says. “I’m going to try that.”
Cathal Dennehy for the IAAF