To Obsie Birru, anyone who runs is a friend.
For example, the unsponsored elite runner made a lasting connection at the 2021 New York City Marathon that launched both athletes to breakthrough performances. While the runners in the elite women’s corral did their final pre-race stretches on the start line in Staten Island, Birru approached science journalist and elite runner Joanna Thompson, and laid out a plan for the race. The two are acquaintances after years of running into each other on the elite racing circuit, but they had never worked together before.
“[Birru] said, ‘alright, me and you, we’re going to do this together,’ and I was like, alright, let’s go,” Thompson told Runner’s World.
Throughout the race, they talked to each other—checking in, offering reassurance, and ultimately becoming a “voice of reason” in the difficult moments, Thompson said. During the race, Birru prefers to accept the water offered by volunteers to the rest of the field on the course, instead of setting out her own bottles with nutrition—a privilege reserved for elites only. Thompson said Birru even offered to share her water with the group, a “selfless” gesture in an event where hydration is key. When Thompson slowed down to grab her bottles at the elite aid stations, Birru waited for her. At the same time, they could hear confusion from spectators on the sidelines. “Did she just tell the other girl ‘good job?’” they heard one bewildered fan ask another.
Working together ultimately paid off for both runners that day. Birru finished her first World Marathon Major in 2:38:54 as the 16th woman overall and the sixth elite American woman. Thompson was the seventh in 2:39:47, a personal best by three minutes.
“To have somebody on the start line be like, ‘you’re my pack,’ that was great,” Thompson said. “I wouldn’t have had the race I had without that.”
A similar situation occurred the 2019 California International Marathon (CIM). During their warm up in Sacramento, Birru started talking to Jane Kibii, a Kenyan-born pro marathoner who lives in Auburn, California. Birru met Kibii when the runners competed at the Twin Cities Marathon in October that year. Before the race started, Birru told Kibii she was unsure of her fitness after the quick turnaround from Twin Cities Marathon to CIM in December, but Kibii assured her that she’d be okay.
When the race started, Birru decided to run with Kibii for as long as she could, but by mile 9 she began to doubt herself.
“I was like, Jane, I don’t think I can keep going with this pace, and she’s like, ‘oh, you’ll be fine,’” Birru told Runner’s World. Birru reciprocated by encouraging Kibii in the later miles when she fell back slightly.
Kibii broke away, ultimately winning the race in 2:29:31. Birru finished second in 2:30:25, improving on her previous personal best by five minutes. “It was so much fun and just nice to have somebody who is a competitor, but yet a friend as well,” she said.
These unexpected initiations of teamwork are two of the many examples in which the Ethiopian-born marathoner has advocated for more kindness in competition and motivated fellow runners to tackle hard efforts together.
“I think it empowers you throughout the race, and it kind of brings back the purpose of running,” Birru said. “Yes, it is to compete. Yes, it is to obviously be better and push yourself. But it’s also about encouraging others.”
On Sunday, December 5, Birru will compete in CIM again, which was canceled last year because of COVID-19. With Kibii out, she is the fastest returner in the elite women’s field, but she doesn’t have a time goal. Instead, she’s looking forward to making new friends and seeing what they can accomplish out on the course.
“Hopefully we can all work together and pull each other to some PRs,” she said. “That would be awesome.”
In an interview with Runner’s World, Birru shared how she honed in on this practice of motivating and helping fellow competitors during races—and why she wants to see more of it.
Maintaining a ‘human first’ approach
Birru, 31, was born in a village located in the Oromia region of Ethiopia, an area known for producing some of the world’s best distance runners. That means she was introduced to the sport of running early in her life, and she was especially inspired by the way those elite runners treated those around them.
“I always say I was born into running, being born in Ethiopia and seeing the running culture, just how kind runners were to each other,” Birru said. “It really kind of shaped me as a person and as a runner as well.”
Birru lived in the country’s capital of Addis Ababa for two years before she was adopted by an American family at 12 years old. When she moved to Des Moines, Iowa, to live with her new adopted family, Birru didn’t speak any English. Unable to communicate with her classmates at first, Birru found a sense of belonging on the cross-country and track team in middle school. Running provided that point of connection she needed.
“Smile is a universal language that a lot of people recognize,” Birru said. “For me, running was a universal language.”
Competing for Johnston High School helped Birru learn how to be a supportive teammate. She credits head coach Pat Hennes with introducing an approach that relieved pressure and kept the sport fun for everyone. “[Hennes] always told me, ‘you’re a human first. We love you as a human first, and no performance is going to change how we feel about you,’” she said.
Reflecting on her passion for teamwork, Birru recalled the first race in which she helped out a fellow runner. The day before their league track and field championships her junior year, the athletes were devising a plan to help their teammate score points in the 3200 meters. In the meeting, Birru offered to run with her until 800 meters to go. Birru said the plan worked when both runners scored points at the championship.
Lifting the running community
Birru went on to compete at the NAIA level for Grand View University, where she became a five-time national champion. Her first marathon was at the 2011 NAIA Outdoor Track and Field Championships, where she broke the NAIA record by winning in 2:46:40.
Post-college, Birru continued to focus on the marathon, training with NE Distance in Providence, Rhode Island, for several years. She qualified for the 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials by running a then-personal best of 2:36:53 at the 2015 Twin Cities Marathon in St. Paul, Minnesota. That race was also where Birru started to embrace teamwork with her elite counterparts.
“Me encouraging you, the runner next to me, or even the masses that are running, it’s not taking anything away from me,” she said. “If anything, it’s fueling me as well. So, I really embrace that, and I love when there are people willing to do that with me.”
To encourage teamwork in competition, Birru said if she knows a few runners in the field, she’ll ask competitors at the start line if anyone would like to work together in the race. She’s had a few experiences where runners aren’t interested—some have even two-stepped her during races—but she laughs it off. Birru said oftentimes, the teamwork starts from a natural progression during the race, when she encourages those around her with positive feedback or by offering to grab them water cups.
“Encouraging and lifting each other up is what’s going to make us better,” Birru said. “And I, for sure, want to be a better human than a better runner.”
Since moving to Phoenix, Arizona in 2019, Birru has written her own training plans while working as a physical education and health teacher for 9-12 graders. Because of her busy schedule, including days that start at 4:45 a.m., she usually trains alone. But she draws inspiration from her running mentors—including Olympians Janet Bawcom, Molly Huddle, and Diane Nukuri—elite athletes Birru admires because they “lift up others as well.”
“At the end of the day, what type of human are you? What is [running] going to do unless you use it to inspire a child or show kindness?” Birru said.
Birru also finds inspiration in her students, who she says motivate her to be a better runner. In her lesson plans, Birru encourages her students to practice positive self-talk every day to “build their confidence muscle.”
Now Birru sees kindness in competition as a way to pay it forward in the running community after receiving so much support from coaches and mentors over the years. “It’s definitely not normalized enough, and I think it should be,” she said.
Taylor Dutch is a sports and fitness writer living in Chicago; a former NCAA track athlete, Taylor specializes in health, wellness, and endurance sports coverage.
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