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Honolulu Marathon contender Betsy Saina feeling at home

By Stanley Lee
(c) 2019 Star Advertiser, all rights reserved

Betsy Saina dropped out of both races during her transition to marathon racing in 2017.

The former NCAA champion at Iowa State University and Kenyan Olympian, who raced professionally at 3-, 5-, and 10-kilometer distances, wondered if she was meant to be racing at 26.2 miles. Her coach, Renato Canova, urged her to return to Kenya from the United States.

“I said, ‘Coach, is there something I can still do to be a marathoner? It looks like I can’t.’ He said come back to Kenya and I’ll be there for you, let’s try and give it another shot,” recalled Saina, who makes her Honolulu Marathon debut on Sunday.

Saina returned in 2018 by winning the Paris Marathon in 2 hours, 22 minutes, 56 seconds. In October, she finished eighth at the Frankfurt Marathon in Germany.

“As soon as I crossed the finish line in Paris, I was super excited because, you know what, I got this,” Saina, 31, said. “I’m excited to see what I can have. Being a marathoner is not easy. Its good experiences and winning changed me to be a different person.”

Her turnaround in 2018 wasn’t the first time Saina received a much-needed boost of support to change her outlook. Saina said she was all over the place as a runner at Iowa State. Her journey there from Kenya was the first time she flew on a plane, and nobody told her about the winter weather, much less explained what snow was. Racing in track spikes was a new experience for someone who raced barefoot in Kenya.

Saina was 141st at the NCAA cross country championships as a freshman. She finished 88th as a sophomore and ninth as a junior and won the race as a senior in 2012. She also won the NCAA indoor track 5k title in 2012 and NCAA outdoor track 10k in 2013.

“It’s all about being consistent, even if you hit the wall today, just keep training because that’s what we did in college,” Saina said. “At some point I told my coach, ‘I don’t know if I’ll be good at this’ and he kept pushing me.”

A bout of food poisoning forced Saina out of the Chicago Marathon in October. She believes the source was Kenyan airport food since she was ill by the time she reached Dubai for a 16-hour flight to Chicago. While her condition improved in Chicago, she was unable to fuel and hydrate properly for the race.

She dropped out at the halfway point, but her agent managed to get her into the Toronto Waterfront Marathon the following weekend, where she finished third in a personal best of 2:22:43, some 27 seconds off the winning time.

“I was really happy,” Saina said. “Nobody could expect me to race after Chicago. I was really stressed out.”

Saina’s goal for 2020 is to race in the 10k at the Tokyo Olympics for Kenya or the U.S. Saina, who resides in Oregon, applied for U.S. citizenship and is considering the U.S. Olympic Trials. Saina finished fifth in the Olympic 10k in 2016.

“If you think about it and how I ended up getting here, how shocking it was, how all these opportunities has made me to be a better person, how it’s changed my family to be where they are now … I have two sisters here. Everybody is doing great back home,” Saina explained.

“I want to get citizenship because I feel like I’m a part of this. This country has been really amazing.”

Defending champion Vivian Jerono Kiplagat is not back to defend her title. Pros in this year’s field include Japan’s Miharu Shimokado, Kenya’s Margaret Wangari Muriuki and Oregon’s Renee Metivier. All are making their Honolulu debuts.

Brigid Kosgei, the 2016 and 2017 champion, set a world record with her winning time of 2:14:04 at October’s Chicago Marathon.


By Stanley Lee