Profile: Running from War, With Great Success

Distance star Diane Nukuri-Johnson leaves civil war—and competitors—in the dust
Flickr/meandmyshadow CC by 2.0

Barbara Huebner—Until she was nine years old, Diane Nukuri-Johnson lived a quiet and peaceful village life in her native Burundi, tending to the family garden and cow. Then civil war broke out, life was upended and her father, a Tutsi soldier, lost his life. A few years later, after Nukuri-Johnson had become one of the top runners in the country, she was returning home from a track meet when a soldier sitting near a window of her minibus was shot and killed. She knew that her future depended on getting out of the country.

In 2001, Nukuri-Johnson told her family that she would not be coming home from the Francophone Games in Canada. Instead, she went to live with a cousin, gaining refugee status and soon making her mark competing for the Toronto Running Club, which eventually led her to Butler Community College and the University of Iowa. At the latter, she became a three-time Big Ten champion before going on to a professional career in which she has set six Burundi national records, including the half-marathon mark of 1:09:12—a personal best by 1:43—that earned her a runner-up finish in the recent NYC Half. Still coached by Iowa’s Layne Anderson, she will compete in the Boston Marathon on April 15, where she hopes to improve on her personal best of 2:30:13 from the 2012 Olympic Games.

Here are five things she wants you to know about her:

1. I was only 15 when I competed at 5000 meters in the Sydney Olympics. I didn’t speak English and was very shy, and to me it was really just like any other race. But carrying the flag for Burundi in the opening ceremonies 12 years later is the highlight of my career so far. It meant so much to me to get another chance to represent my country, wearing “invutano”—traditional Burundian wraparounds—and marching into the stadium.

2. I live in Iowa City with my husband, Alex Johnson. We met when he was a reporter for our college newspaper. People think that Iowa is flat, but it isn’t. It’s hilly, so it’s a great place to train for my first Boston Marathon. I respect the distance and all the people who do the marathon so much. I don’t care if you run in 2:18 or in five hours; it’s all about feeling great that day and getting to the starting line injury-free.

3. The biggest surprise for me about living in Canada was how hard life was. I always thought things were going to be easy. I thought I could just run, go to school, just hang out. I never thought how hard it would be to be away from my family, and the older I got the harder it was. I was even worried that when I saw my little sisters again I wouldn’t recognize them. With all the challenges I was facing, I was never discouraged because I knew life was better in Canada than it was in Burundi, but it was true: When I finally got to go back to Burundi, eight years after I left, I did not recognize them. It was a sad day but I was happy to finally see everyone.

4. Right after the Olympics, I went back to Burundi for two months and decided to organize a small cross-country race, 10K for men and 5K for women, in Ijenda, where I went to primary school. That’s where everything started for me and I wanted to show kids that you can do anything you want to as long as you want it. It turned out great. It is something I would love to organize every year and I feel like it's a great way to give back to my country.

5. The NYC Half was a breakthrough for me. I still can’t believe that happened. I mean, I had great workouts leading up to the race, but I guess I never pictured myself running 1:09.12 this year and being just three seconds away from the winner. My favorite part was seeing my agent Brendan [Reilly’s] face when they handed me Burundi’s flag. He has been so supportive and he believed in me. I don’t know if other athletes have an agent like Brendan, but I have to say I am grateful to be on his team. Going into the race, my goal was to break 70 minutes and be in the top 5, but I would‘ve been happy with a PB and finishing in the top 10. But sometimes you have to trust your fitness and ignore the voices in your head telling you that you might die if you get too aggressive.

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