by Diane Nukuri

Where I grew up, women just didn’t run.  

When I’d go out training, people in my village thought I was crazy. They’d tell my Mom: “You need to discipline her.”

It was a simple life in Burundi, one I loved. I’d wake up super-early, do chores on the family farm –looking after the cows, goats and chickens – then I’d go to school or take care of my siblings.

But the one thing I always found hard was trying to run. I’d sometimes get comments. “Oh my God, you’re so muscular, like a man.” I’d just shake my head and laugh it off.

I knew what I wanted, and I wasn’t going to stop because others thought I should. When I’d go to races I’d tell my brother, Innocent, to cover for me, to make up a story for my Mom that I was doing something else.

Back then, running was never about winning medals or prize money.  For me, it was just a ticket to travel.

Diane Nukuri ()

I was 13 when I began. At primary school, we’d have one hour of physical activity every day and because we didn’t have basketball courts or soccer pitches, my gym teacher would make us run around a dirt track. The next year a local coach, Jean-Pierre Sinzinkayo, formed a club and he opened the door for us to race in Bujumbura, the biggest city in Burundi.

We weren’t a well-off family, we didn’t have a car, and in my village you were lucky if you could afford to take a bus. I’d never been to the city, so this sounded like the perfect chance.

I won the race, and that opened doors for me.

I was able to go to a different school because of it and in 1999 I took my first ever flight, going to South Africa for the All-Africa Games. The following year, I was selected to run for Burundi at the Sydney Olympics.

I was 15 years old, and felt star struck as I walked around the Olympic village. I didn’t have the qualifying standard and I got lapped in the 5000m heats, but I was proud of how I did, running 16:36 with no real preparation.

As big as that was, it was the following year – 2001 – when my decision to run would change my life forever.

Diane Nukuri ()

Growing up, I was aware of the Burundian Civil War from an early age.

It began in 1993, when I was eight, and that was the year my father was killed in the conflict. Losing a parent is something you don’t forget, and it was in the back of my mind years later when I made my decision to leave.

There was one day in particular when I knew I had to go. I was 15 and it was around the time I was starting to travel to the city. Things were still very unstable along the main highway and on my way back from a race, sitting in a 12-person van, a guy who had his head out the window got shot.

I had never experienced anything like that before and I had to sit near his dead body for the 40km journey, then watch his relatives cry when we arrived at his home. That was my wake-up call.

In July 2001, I saw my chance to start a new life. I was due to represent Burundi at the Francophone Games in Ottawa, Canada, and I knew I had a cousin living a few hours away from there.

Once my race was over, I met my cousin at the back of the dorms I was staying in at the University of Ottawa and escaped.

Clearly, it wasn’t legal, but I wasn’t the only one – more than 20 other athletes did the same. For the first two days I couldn’t sleep, following the news reports on TV about the missing athletes and knowing someone was out there trying to find me.

That was scary.

Eventually I spoke to team managers on the phone and they told me to come back, that I was making the biggest mistake of my life.

I knew it was not. I knew the situation back home and that this was the only way I could escape and help my family.

My cousin helped me through the tough times that followed, arranging for me to work with a lawyer to get asylum papers. I didn’t speak any English when I arrived. At school the only foreign language I took was French so at our new home in Pickering, Ontario, I enrolled at a French language high school. I graduated two years later at the age of 19 and it was only when I came to the United States, in 2004, that I started learning English.

Layne Anderson from the University of Iowa recruited me in high school but because I wasn't ready to go in 2004, he suggested attending Butler Community College in Kansas, where I spent two years under the guidance of Kirk Hunter. Both of those coaches were crucial to my development. They were like father figures, guys who took me to the next level and made me feel part of their families.

Those years of proper training took me to a new level and at Iowa, I grew a lot both on and off the track, racing the best women in the NCAA like Jenny Simpson, Susan Kuijken, Sally Kipyego.

When I reflect over everything that has happened since those days, I begin to understand the true value of running.

Diane Nukuri ()

The sport has given me an income, financial stability, and allowed me to turn my passion into a profession. It’s also given me free shoes, something my nieces get very excited about.

For almost 10 years I’ve been part of the Asics family and they’ve been so supportive, sticking in my corner through injuries or bad performances. My manager, Brendan Reilly, is also one of the best guys in the sport, and you need those kind of people around you to stay the course in this game.

In 2012, I returned to the Olympic Games and I was proud of my performance in the marathon, finishing 30th. Same goes for Rio in 2016, where I was 13th in the 10,000m with a national record of 31:28.69. Some of the best memories, though, are from smaller events, great road races like Falmouth or Beach to Beacon.

It’s a wonderful feeling on the days when things click, like in 2013 when I ran 69:12 to finish second in the New York City Half Marathon, or in 2016 when I finished fifth in the New York City Marathon.

But to me, running is about so much more than results. This is what helped me get out of my village, what allowed me to ride a bus and take a plane for the first time. It’s what allowed me to go to college, to do all the things I’ve been able to do over the past 20 years and meet the people I’ve met.

Running may not be my whole life, but it has definitely changed my life.

It’s the most simple sport, yet you can find people who make it complicated. I never overthink it. If I don’t feel like going for a run, I don’t. If my body’s not feeling it, I might just go for a walk.

I still have big goals. My quickest marathon is the 2:27:50 I ran in London in 2015 but I feel I can go faster. I also have a lot of plans in the sport once my racing days are behind me.

A few years ago I started a race in Burundi, putting on an event for kids who might not have the same gym teacher I had to show me the way. I’d love to expand that in the future and encourage more young athletes.

When I left home all those years ago, it wasn't an easy choice. It was many years before I got to see my mother and siblings again and though there's still a big distance between us, it makes it all the more special when I get to return home and see them. 

Diane Nukuri ()

It was hard to leave, but I was aware I had a chance to make a better life – it would be foolish not to take it.

These days, I live in Flagstaff, Arizona, and my hope is to do camps here for those who want a running experience for the summer. Whether it’s in the United States or Burundi, I know a lot of kids are struggling, not knowing what they want to do in life.

I’d love to work with them and help them dream, to show them that they can do whatever they want once they’re willing to commit.

Becoming a runner changed my life and for that, I’ll always be grateful. In the years since, the sport has given me everything I’d ever dreamed of, everything I’d ever wanted.

Images courtesy of Asics and Diane Nukuri