By Sam Grotewold, Marathon News Service
Between now and the ING New York City Marathon on November 3, Marathon News Service will take an occasional look “Beyond the Stats” at the special stories of some of the professional athletes set to compete.
Diane Nukuri-Johnson has been asked the question so many times that she doesn’t even need to think about the answer anymore: Why, after a solid career at the University of Iowa, did she choose to remain in Iowa City rather than move to a location better known for producing world-class marathon talent? Why not move someplace that would offer the chance to train at altitude, or quality training partners, or at least a temperate climate for more than a few weeks out of the year?
For the most part, her reasons are practical. “I’m really comfortable there,” she says. “My husband is there. My coach is there. People are friendly. It’s a great place for me to train. People think Iowa is flat, but it’s not. It’s hilly. It’s quiet.”
Usually, that response is enough to satisfy. But occasionally, Nukuri-Johnson’s bright eyes will narrow, her voice will become even quieter than usual, and she’ll add one final reason: “It’s safe.”
It’s safe. For much of her childhood, the idea of safety was as alien as the brightly colored Asics shoes and clothing she now gets paid to wear.
Diane Nukuri grew up in Burundi, a landlocked East African nation only slightly larger than Massachusetts. She was 9 years old in 1993, when the country broke out into a bloody civil war that lasted for more than a decade and claimed the lives of an estimated 300,000 people, including her father. Although her village was never directly attacked, stories of looting, rape, and murder were commonplace. At night, gunfire could be heard. It was never safe. In a world of near-constant upheaval and fear, Nukuri found solace and stability in running.
Enlisting her seven siblings to cover her chores (and to run interference with her mother, who did not support her running), Nukuri began attending after-school track practice. A trip to a regional track meet at the age of 13, her first night away from home, gave her a glimpse of the world outside her village. Within two years, she was the fastest woman in Burundi and was headed to the Olympic Games in Sydney.
There, she recalls meeting distance stars Bernard Lagat and Abdi Abdirahman. The friendship she struck up with Venuste Niyongabo, Burundi’s 5000-meter Olympic champion in 1996 and a national hero, endures to this day. Although she was far from a medal—she didn’t qualify for her 5000-meter final—her path was clear. She needed to run as fast as she could.
A few months after the Games, with the war among her people far from over, Nukuri was riding a bus home from a track meet when the bus was strafed with gunfire. The passenger sitting next to her was killed; blood covered the floor mats. That experience set her plan in motion: When she left Burundi for Canada to compete in the Francophone Games in July 2001, she would not return. Speaking no English, very little French, and with only a scrap of paper with the phone number of a cousin she had never met, Nukuri left Burundi.
The cousin, while skeptical at first, eventually agreed to take Nukuri into her home outside Toronto. She was safe. Although she missed her family terribly and struggled to communicate, she continued to run. Running helped. Competing for a Canadian club, her performances caught the attention of a number of U.S. college coaches, including Layne Anderson at the University of Iowa.
A visit by Anderson to Nukuri in Canada sealed the deal. After a stint at a community college in Kansas to work on her English, Nukuri moved to Iowa City to become a Hawkeye. There, she won a Big Ten title, earned three All-America certificates, and set several school records. More important, she met her future husband, Alex Johnson, then a sports reporter for the Daily Iowan student newspaper.
Despite her accomplishments in an Iowa uniform, Nukuri-Johnson progressed even more rapidly after college. Her improvement from race to race was astonishing. In 2012 she made another Olympic team—this time in the marathon—and she’s now among the favorites in nearly every race she enters. In mid-September, with legs heavy from marathon training, she set a national record when she won the 10,000 meters at the Francophone Games, the very meet that started her journey more than a decade ago.
This will not be Nukuri-Johnson’s first time running the ING New York City Marathon. That was in 2011, where she finished 20th after stepping in a pothole on First Avenue and limping the final eight miles on a broken toe. It is, however, her first time running the race where she should be viewed as a podium contender. She finished second against a world-class field at the NYC Half in March, even surging to the lead in the final mile. In May, she won San Francisco’s Bay to Breakers 12K, one of the largest and most competitive races in the world. Her 2:29:54 finish in Boston in April was another national record and good for eighth place overall.
Nukuri-Johnson has returned to Burundi three times since 2009, most recently after the Olympic Games last year. Her mother has come to accept and even embrace her daughter’s life as an athlete. During her two-month stay last autumn, Nukuri-Johnson organized a small cross-country race in Ijenda, where she attended school as a young girl.
“That’s where everything started for me,” she told NYRR earlier this year, “and I wanted to show kids, ‘You can do anything as long as you want it.’” Now a hero to those children, just as Niyongabo was to her, Nukuri-Johnson runs on, leading by example.