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‘I never imagined this would be the thing I would be doing’

  • DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARADVERTISER.COM
    Diane Nukuri left Burundi at a young age, lived with relatives in Canada, went to college at Iowa and now lives in Arizona.
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No challenge has ever been insurmountable, and no opportunity has ever been wasted by Diane Nukuri.

Not when you’re a stubborn teen who chose running over her mother’s disapproval. Not when you’re a high schooler who sensed new opportunities and left behind family in a country at war. Realizing her running talent could land a college scholarship, Nukuri later learned English.

August’s Mexico City Marathon was supposed to be a hard training run for Nukuri. At the 35-kilometer mark, she had the option to stop or keep going. She wound up as the runner-up.

Like her competitors from the African continent in Sunday’s Honolulu Marathon, running has opened many doors for her outside of Burundi, a small landlocked country in Africa.

“I never imagined this would be the thing I would be doing,” said Nukuri, a two-time Olympian who recently turned 30 and now lives in Arizona. “Traveling, being paid to do what I love, meeting people, I never pictured that, especially back home. I made a lot of sacrifices leaving my family.”

At age 15, Nukuri represented Burundi at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. She ran the 5,000 meters and finished near the bottom of her heat. But her foray into international competition would lead to opportunities that would later change her life.

At the 2001 Francophone Games in Canada, she placed third in the 10,000 meters. With a war going on back in Burundi and knowing her opportunities would be limited because of it, Nukuri decided to move in with relatives in Canada.

“(There were) dangerous roads, that was scary,” Nukuri said. “I was young and my mom was always worried. That was tough in 2001, going to Canada and deciding not to go back. It was not safe. If I would’ve gone back, there was no way to keep running. It was not safe and I took the chance and the opportunity to stay in Canada.”

University of Iowa cross country coach Layne Anderson then helped Nukuri get to college in the United States. While moving into his new his office, Anderson saw Nukuri’s name and number scribbled on a scrap of paper. He took a chance and went for it.

For Nukuri, who was receiving scholarship offers from American colleges, this was one opportunity she couldn’t pass up. Not when she could continue running while receiving an athletic scholarship. Except, she attended a French-speaking high school in Canada and had to learn English.

“I wanted to go to college,” Nukuri said. “Once I got scholarship offers, I could not turn that down.”

Anderson helped her get to Butler Community College in Kansas where she was an All-American in cross country and track. By the time Nukuri transferred to Iowa, she had more confidence communicating with others in English. She won a Big Ten title in cross country, was a two-time regional champion and earned All-America honors in cross country and track.

“She came here and made friends with a lot of people, was an engaged student, a lot of people enjoyed being around her,” Anderson said.

Nukuri said college running is one of her favorite memories.

“It’s an opportunity to compete at the highest level,” she said. “The NCAA, there’s a lot of people who go from the NCAA to Olympics.”

After graduating with a degree in communication studies, Nukuri stuck around in Iowa City, determined to keep on running and training in tough Midwest winters. While she embodied talent, so did the plethora of professionals out there. Over time, she found an agent who opened doors for her, allowing her to compete in bigger races with bigger monetary prizes. Asics also donated equipment.

“I felt like she had the potential,” said Anderson, who still coaches Nukuri. “The greater challenge was maintaining and having the support and infrastructure around her to continue doing it. It was great she remained in Iowa City. She could work with me, we could keep her going in our system.”

After running in the 2012 London Olympic marathon, Nukuri returned to Burundi to host a race in her village. She fronted some money, asked for donations from fellow runners, and got prizes from Asics. There were 100 participants the first year and more than 200 last year.

“It’s something I look to do in the next couple years,” Nukuri said. “It’s nice. It was a lot of work. It gave me more appreciation to people who invite us to races all the time and the work they put in.”

Sunday’s marathon will be her fourth of the year and third in a little more than three months. She finished third in October’s Amsterdam Marathon and won a Connecticut road race on Thanksgiving as a tune up for Honolulu. For critics who say she’s overdoing it, Nukuri said she’s feeling fine.

“It’s been really nice to go with it and take advantage that I’m healthy and fit,” Nukuri said. “I’m looking forward to taking a break after Honolulu. I’m staying a few days here to enjoy.”

Nukuri is looking forward to seeing friends in Honolulu. Running has been a way to socialize, meet new people and make friends. She said she enjoyed the London Olympics more than Sydney because she was able to get out and talk to people.

While running has taken her across the world, she hasn’t been able to fully share her experiences with her family. Her mother has never seen her race internationally. Her brother was the first family member to see her race recently in Maine. But there are more opportunities ahead, including the possibility of the 2016 Olympics.

“I think I have couple more years in me,” Nukuri said. “I’m hoping to stay healthy and get better. I feel like I’m getting comfortable. I have a lot of work to do. I think I’m getting there and 2016 will be good for me.”

TRAFFIC CLOSURES

Traffic closures along the marathon route will start Sunday at 12:30 a.m. There will be lane closures, tow-away zones, and rerouting of TheBus. More information is online at www.honolulumarathon.org/event-info/traffic-advisory/

MARATHON EXPO

Runners can still register for the marathon and pick up their rack packets by Saturday at 5 p.m. at the Honolulu Convention Center. As of Friday morning, there were 32,465 signed up for the marathon. Race bibs will not be handed out on Sunday.

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