It won’t be hard to pick out Diane Nukuri in the pack of elite women at Sunday’s TCS New York City Marathon—at 6 feet tall, with her signature Grace Jones-like high-and-tight haircut, she’s one of the most distinctive runners in the field.
Less easy is categorizing where the 31-year-old Nukuri fits in the running world. Born in the East African nation of Burundi, she’s represented her country in three Olympics, and yet has lived half her life in North America, and attended college in the U.S., where she still lives and trains.
“I don’t know, do I feel American?” she said on Friday. “I race all over the world, I have friends from so many countries, I kind of feel more like a global citizen.”
RELATED: How to Watch the 2016 NYC Marathon
Perhaps that makes her the poster girl for this most international of marathons, although the women’s field will as usual be dominated by athletes from Kenya and Ethiopia. Still, Nukuri isn’t intimidated by them, nor the distance, although she feels it’s twice as long as her favorite race.
“I really did everything I could to get ready for this, and even though something can go wrong in the marathon and I might be disappointed, I won’t have any regrets,” she said. “I’d like to think I’m a better runner and have gotten smarter about training as I’ve gotten older.”
Much of her training for this race was done in Flagstaff with Janet Bawcom, who will join Nukuri on the starting line Sunday. Bawcom is a native of Kenya who, like Nukuri, came to the U.S. to attend college and stayed. Now 38, Bawcom became a U.S. citizen in 2010 and placed 12th in the 10,000m on the track at the 2012 Olympics running for the U.S.
“She’s like a big sister to me. I’ve learned so much from her, she’s really inspired and motivated me,” said Nukuri, citing the ability to do the first pull-ups of her life thanks to Bawcom’s prodding.
For most of her life, though, Nukuri has been self-motivated and directed, by choice and by circumstance. Selected to represent Burundi in the 2000 Olympic 5,000 at age 15, her eyes were suddenly opened to the possibilities of a world outside her life on a farm in rural Kigozi.
The worsening civil war in her home country led her to move to Canada to live with a cousin, telling her mother she’d return in a year. She didn’t go back until she was 24, having completed college at the University of Iowa where she was All American three times.
She became a fixture on the U.S road racing scene but didn’t return to the Olympics until 2012, placing 30th in the marathon in 2:30:12. She returned to the streets of London three years later where she recorded her current PR of 2:27:50. She sandwiched her Olympic marathon with her two Big Apple runs, placing 20th in 2011 and 10th in 2013.
A third place, 32:18 showing at this spring’s NYRR New York Mini convinced her to skip the marathon in favor of running the 10,000 in Rio, where she set a national record 31:28.69, good for 13th place.
“Not running the marathon in the Olympics allowed me to come here and get treated like a princess and run in front of thousands of cheering people.”
Nukuri’s goal for Sunday is to “be competitive, place high. I think if everything goes right I can run 2:26, 2:27. But the marathon is such a long race you really don’t know what’s going to happen. So we’ll just have to see how it plays out.”