The streets of the Czech capital provided the setting for what was one of the most impressive comebacks of recent times when Kenya’s Isabella Ochichi took third place in the Hervis Prague Half Marathon, an IAAF Gold Label Road Race, on Saturday.
She stopped the clock in 69:21 in her first major international contest for more than six years.
The 33-year-old 2004 Olympic 5000m silver medallist last competed outside Kenya in 2006 and her outstanding performance on her return is perhaps unprecedented in women’s distance running at this level.
Ochichi was a familiar face in the first half of the last decade and her biggest international success came in Athens when she finished second in the 5000m behind Ethiopia’s Meseret Defar, and ahead of the latter’s compatriot Tirunesh Dibaba.
In addition to her Athens success, she also competed over 5000m at the 2003 and 2005 IAAF World Championships, finishing sixth and eighth respectively, and finished in the top 10 in each of her six races at the five IAAF World Cross Country Championships between 2002 and 2006, including two bronze medals in the now defunct short race.
In 2006, she had a fine track season that ended with a third place at the World Athletics Final 5000m in Stuttgart but that race was to be her last outside Kenya until last Saturday.
Not long after her Stuttgart outing, she suffered an injury to her left Achilles tendon. “I had surgery on it in 2006 and then tried to come back in 2007, but it didn’t work. So I had to have a second operation in Kenya in 2008. After that it took a long time to heal,” recalled Ochichi.
She then had a baby at the end of 2010 (her son Bernard is now two-and-a-half) before starting running again. “But when I started, I didn’t think of a comeback. It was just about keeping fit.”
Pregnancy and being away from the track for several years meant that, of course, she had put on some weight.
“I had 17 kilos more than before, but I didn’t use any special diet to get rid of the extra kilos. Instead, I worked very hard in training. First, I started slowly and then added distance to my training runs. Step-by-step, I moved forward and it was going better and better.”
It was at the beginning of last year when she started thinking of a comeback. Just over 12 months ago, Ochichi ran in a local cross country race in Kenya.
Nine months later, she felt ready to test herself in a Half-marathon. A high altitude in Nakuru, she ran 74:26.
After that, Ochichi decided to aim for her first international race since 2006 and selected the Hervis Prague Half Marathon. “I knew she was serious because Isabella is a very professional athlete,” said Zane Branson, her manager.
Branson revealed that she now trains in the Ngong Hills near Nairobi, close to her home in the area, with the group of Marathon world record-holder Patrick Makau.
“I wanted to come to Prague to see what I can achieve with my training. I wasn’t sure what would be possible here,” she added.
“After all these years I am very happy now. I expected to run well, but I didn’t think about achieving a third place.” It was actually the third-fastest time of her career and she was not that far away from her personal best of 68:38 that she ran in Nice way back in 2001.
At the age of 33, she should still have some outstanding years ahead of her as a distance runner.
“My next goal is to make my Marathon debut. I plan to do this in May,” said Ochichi. “I have already done training races of 38 kilometres.”
Her next step will be eagerly awaited.
With her pedigree, it would not be too far-fetched to see her back on the global stage sometimes soon, whether at Moscow 2013 this summer or a little further into the future.
Jorg Wenig for the IAAF