A banker with an eye on the Boston Marathon marble

ESTHER Obiekwe is an athlete with an unusual story. Most athletes begin their career from their infancy, growing through the junior ranks until they become household names. But that is not how this marathoner, who has ran in most of the big events in the athletic calendar, began her foray into big time running.

A banker with Fidelity Bank, Obiekwe began her journey into stardom just six years ago. She did not do any sports in both her primary and secondary schools days.
Rather, she started running on the streets of Lagos just to keep fit. But as in most things ordained by the higher powers, she was bound to fulfill her destiny even at the age of 34. Now, she has been listed as one of the contestants in the 2012 Boston International Marathon.

Narrating her story in Lagos recently, Obiekwe told The Guardian that her foray into international athletics was an act of God. According to the banker, who holds an MBA, “I started running in my neighbourhood to keep fit. But in one of the practice sessions I ran into Nigerian Bottling Company’s Managing Director, Jim Lafferty, who is also an accomplished athletics coach.

“Lafferty invited me to join their keep fit club and then thought several things I didn’t know about athletics. I used to think that running was just taking to the roads and trying to beat your competitors. But Lafferty exposed me to the numerous skills in long distance running.

“These include preparation for a race, acceleration, breaking and nutrition, among other things, and now he saw the improvement I made in just few weeks after joining the club, he encouraged me to start doing competitions.”

Obiekwe began her journey into stardom with local events such as the Glo Half Marathon with the support of Eva Water, a sponsorship brokered by Lafferty, whose company manufactures the Eva Water brand. From the little steps she took six years ago, Obiekwe has graduated to such big events as the Athens Marathon, the Berlin Marathon and recently, the Dubai Marathon.

Brimming with optimism and a sense of accomplishment, Obiekwe says she cannot stop until she leaves her mark in the true sense of it in her chosen field. She said: I am looking forward to the Boston Marathon, which I have qualified for.

“But before then, I will take part in the Berlin Marathon in September. You see, I have been using all my holidays to travel for races because it helps me to gauge my ability. I would have been happier if I had started running earlier, but I have no regrets. Whatever I lost by not starting early I will regain with hardwork.”

Running under the Eva brand, Obiekwe three weeks ago clocked three hours 36 seconds (3.36) to improve on her personal best of 3.49 and became the first Nigerian (man and woman) to participate in the race. In October last year, she had pulled a similar feat by concluding the world original 42 kilometres marathon in Athens at 3:49 – less four hours and placing as the first Nigerian in the race.

With these feats, Obiekwe has earned a place for herself among the exclusive club of recognised marathoners in the world, with statistics showing that only 0.1 per cent of the world’s six billion population ever runs a marathon.

Commenting on this world-class performance, Lafferty, who combines his job at Nigerian Bottling Company with coaching the running club, says Obiekwe in eight months has transformed into a world-class marathoner. He stated: “It has been my honour and pleasure to be a running partner and part-time coach for Esther. Only 0.1 per cent of the world’s population ever runs a marathon.

“‘I am a marathoner’” is one of life’s greatest boasts! Not only has Esther done this, but also she has achieved this by incredible determination and discipline – waking up before 5a.m most days to join the group, running without the benefit of jogging trails or parks and having to travel internationally to enter into races.

“To finish a marathon under four hours is something only 10 per cent of runners ever do. So she is in the top 10m per cent of the top 0.1 per cent. She is one of only a few thousand women in the world to do this.

“All of this makes what is a great accomplishment something even more inspiring. Esther is a tribute and an inspiration to women and all of Nigeria. Take a few minutes to peruse her site and you will find yourself, like me, pumped-up to go out and get a few miles in.”

Lafferty is particularly impressed by Obiekwe’s resilience and determination to succeed, saying: “She is the toughest runner I have ever seen. I can’t think of any time she has missed training because of injury, and I think she is the statement of the greatness of this country.

“She is a role model, who can teach young girls that they can use running to enhance their lives. She can galvanise kids under12 years to take to running because it is a life changing sport.

“I can see her running better than she is doing now in two to three years time. But she needs altitude simulation to achieve real greatness in marathon running, and I know that given the right conditions and her tremendous leg speed she will go places.”

Explaining Obiekwe’s absence from this year’s Boston Marathon, Lafferty says: “Boston is in March and they don’t expect her to run the race because she just finished the Dubai Marathon. A runner cannot do more than two marathons in a year because of what the event takes out of the person. But she is good to go in 2012.”