By Joe Battaglia
PRAGUE (07-Apr) -- More than an hour into yesterday's Hervis Prague Half Marathon, a Ukrainian male runner in neon yellow pulled up off to the side, yielding right of way across the finish line to a female competitor, who decelerated across the blue timing mat in 69 minutes and 21 seconds.
There was little fanfare.
In fact, many folks around the finish will have to be forgiven for not recognizing who the woman finishing third was.
You might not know it, but Isabella Ochichi is one of the more accomplished distance runners of the 21st century. But she has spent the last seven years out of the running spotlight, the result of two horrific injuries and maternity leave.
Now 33 years-old and eying a move to the marathon, Ochichi reintroduced herself to the international athletics community with an unexpected podium finish on a tough course (3-4 kilometers of cobblestone road) under less than ideal conditions (4C/39F temps).
"I was hoping to run well but was not expecting to finish in the top three at all," Ochichi told Race Results Weekly. "I was feeling well but I was unsure of myself with my running. I was suspicious. I was not confident sometimes because when you go out from running for so long, you come back as a totally new person, no experience, no nothing. I am basically starting from zero."
The daughter of a subsistence farmer in the western Kenyan village of Kisii, Ochichi was somewhat of a local running prodigy growing up, and by 1997 had gained the attention of a European manager. That year, she was entered in nine low-key road races in France and won eight of them.
But the following year, Ochichi contracted a severe case of malaria and was unable to train or compete for nearly 17 months. She returned to racing in the fall of 1999 and the following year she won 11 French road races, six of them in course-record fashion.
In 2001, Ochichi set her half marathon personal best of 68:48 and then turned to the track, where she gradually began building an impressive resume. The pinnacle came in 2004, when she parlayed a tremendous spring on the roads --she won the Carlsbad 5-K in 14:53 and crushed Catherine Ndereba in Washington D.C.'s Cherry Blossom 10-K, winning in 52:07-- into smashing success on the oval.
Her 2004 outdoor campaign began with 5000m PR of 14:46.42 in Hengelo followed by a victory at the Seville Grand Prix in 14:55.95 a week later. After qualifying for Kenya's Olympic team in July, she won the 3000m at the Madrid Super Grand Prix in 8:37.68 and the Paris Golden League in a personal-best and world-leading 8:31.32.
Clearly, Ochichi was on top of her game heading into the Athens Games, where she proved stronger than Turkey's Elvan Abeylegesse, the world-record holder at the time, before succumbing to Ethiopia's Meseret Defar. Nevertheless, she scored a well-earned silver medal in 14:48.19.
In 2005, she picked up where she left off, winning a bronze medal in the short race and earning two team silvers at the World Cross-Country Championships. Things didn't go as well on the track at the Helsinki World Championships as she finished a disappointing eighth in the 5000m.
Ochichi returned to the podium in 2006, however, winning 5000m gold at the Commonwealth Games. She capped that season on Sept. 9, with a third-place finish behind Ethiopians Tirunesh Dibaba and Defar in the 5000m in 16:07.39 at the World Athletics Final in Stuttgart.
No one, Ochichi included, figured that would be her last race in nearly a decade.
"I have been away for so long," Ochichi said. "I cannot believe it but it has been like seven years. I had an injury, my left Achilles tendon ruptured in 2007. It got healed by the end of the year, and I started back to training. I trained for three months and just when my body started picking up, I went down again with the same Achilles. I needed another operation."
One Achilles tendon surgery was difficult to recover from, but the second was even more grueling. Ochichi said that after the second surgery, she was unable to walk for nearly eight months and spent all of that time cooped up in the house.
Soon thereafter she and her husband, road racer David Maina, decided to start a family. In 2010, Ochichi gave birth to their son Bernard.
But pregnancy wasn't so easy to recover from either.
"It was a whole new experience," she said. "When you are an athlete, you are always very light, carrying no weight. When you have a baby you put on more weight. By the time I gave birth, I was carrying 63 kilograms which was a lot for me. I had gained probably 19 kilos extra. I struggled to keep it down."
Following her second Achilles surgery, Ochichi said that her doctors told her that running was off limits. But the pull to regain some of her old fitness became too much and she ultimately ignored those orders. Before long, not only did she regain her physique, but she also rekindled her love for the sport.
"Each time I was going out, I kept improving and improving," Ochichi said. "In 2011, I can remember thinking that I needed to go back to competitive running even though the doctors said no. I felt my body smiling and I knew I had to try. I love running."
Ochichi began serious training in the Ngong hills outside Nairobi in 2011, joining the group led by men's marathon world record holder Patrick Makau. Within a year, she says she was able to return to peak training form.
Unsure how that training fitness would translate to racing fitness, Ochichi entered a low-key half-marathon in Kikuyu this past November. According to her manager, Zane Branson, she finished the race in 74:26 and finished about four seconds behind 2011 Boston Marathon champion Caroline Kilel.
"I did the one road race, but road races in Kenya are not on a tarmac," she said. "They are just on a rough road, which is much more different from what I was doing here. To be on the tarmac and to be really running, this was my first race."
What's next for Ochichi is a move up to the full marathon. When that will be remains undetermined. Branson said a likely scenario could have her running a couple more half marathons to build confidence before making her debut over the full 26.2 miles in the fall.
"This was a big step for her in terms of getting some confidence back under her belt," Branson said.
Ochichi is quick to stress that this is only the first step in her comeback.
"For some people, me finishing on the podium in Prague might change their outlook for me," she said. "But looking at the results I had before the injury, I feel like I am back in running but I am not really the Isabella I was before. But I am hopeful for the future."
PHOTO: Isabella Ochichi on the podium after finishing third at the 2013 Hervis Prague Half-Marathon (Photo by Joe Battaglia for Race Results Weekly)