Mary Ngugi: How a ‘traumatic’ death inspired distance runner to change women’s sport in Kenya
In the darkest moments of her toughest training sessions, professional marathon runner Mary Ngugi likes to lean on her trackside audience for motivation.
That’s not necessarily her coach – nor her training partners – but a much younger group of runners who have started frequenting Ngugi’s athletics track in the Kenyan town of Nyahururu.
After launching Nala Track Club several weeks ago, which she believes is the first all-girls athletics club in Kenya, Ngugi has found added fuel for her own training.
“[When] these girls are looking up at me, there’s no way I’m going to give up,” she tells CNN Sport. “It changes my outlook – I’m not just doing this for myself. I’m doing it for those girls looking at me.”
According to Ngugi, most of the girls recruited for Nala Track Club are juniors, still at primary school or high school but with the potential to become a top runner in the future.
The club finds schools for the girls to attend alongside their training, and – given many of the recruits come from underprivileged families – even helps to pay for school fees.
In her 16-year career competing at international races, Ngugi has never been coached by a woman. She hopes that Nala Track Club will one day be home to an all-female group of coaches, bringing much-needed change to the male-dominated world of Kenyan athletics.
“I think with numbers comes power,” says Ngugi, “and that’s what we are trying to promote – more female coaches, more female agents, more female representatives.”
Nala Track Club is the latest step in Ngugi’s quest to empower female athletes in Kenya and beyond, particularly following the death of compatriot and fellow distance runner Agnes Tirop.
The 25-year-old Tirop, a two-time world championship medalist and the women-only 10 km world record holder, was found dead with stab wounds in her home last year.
Her husband, Ibrahim Rotich, was charged with her murder several days later. He has since denied the charge, according to AFP. Court proceedings are ongoing.
Tirop’s death prompted a nationwide movement against gender-based violence in Kenya. For Ngugi, that meant launching the Women’s Athletic Alliance, a campaign that seeks to empower women through athletics and promote equality in the sport.
“It’s sad we had to experience such a traumatic thing for us to start the Women’s Athletics Alliance,” says Ngugi. “I was like … we have to do something. We can’t just sit down and wait for someone else to die.”
At the start of this year and in light of Tirop’s death, Kenya’s Sports Ministry released a report into the troubling relationship between sport and violence against women in Kenya.
In the report, former marathon runner Catherine Ndereba – chair of the Committee on Gender Welfare in Sports, which compiled the report – referenced the years of “rampant but unreported cases of discrimination, sexual abuse, and Gender-based Violence propagated against female athletes” in the country.
In another part of the report, a survey of 486 female Kenyan athletes revealed that 11% of respondents said they had experienced sexual, physical and emotional abuse, while 57% of those said they had received such abuse on more than 10 occasions.
Ngugi says incidents of abuse are a product of the unhealthy level of power male coaches wield over young female athletes.
“When you come to a camp and you’re a young girl, you’re always afraid of what this coach would do to you … Maybe, they want to sleep with you, and if you refuse, you’ll be sent back home,” she says.
“You don’t want to go back home to the village. You want to chase your dreams, to change the life of your family … That’s one of the big reasons why we have Nala Track Club – so that these girls can pursue their dreams without being afraid of the consequences.”
The issue of gender-based violence in Kenya is not only restricted to sport.
According to a 2018 World Health Organization report, an estimated 38% of women in Kenya aged between 15 and 49 had experienced intimate partner violence, compared to a global average of 27%.
Looking beyond athletics, Ngugi points to cultural norms that have created inequality between men and women.
“The males are always the superior figure,” she says. “It’s always: you have to look up to the men, you have to answer to them, you have to do what they say … It’s a cultural thing that needs to stop.”
The Sports Ministry’s report proposed a series of government actions to make sport safer for women in the future, but Ngugi wants to see immediate support from within the athletics community – particularly from her male peers.
“Their silence is a bit disturbing,” she says, “because most of them, they don’t say anything. They don’t tell you: ‘Oh, we are supporting what you are doing.’”
Having competed in track and road races at the start of her career, Ngugi contested her first marathon in 2019, and since then has twice finished on the podium at the Boston Marathon.
She next plans to race in April, at which point she will be 34 and entering the final years of her professional running career. Before then, she hopes to win a major marathon and represent her country one more time – perhaps at the world championships next year or at the Paris Olympics in 2024.
These days, Ngugi is juggling her training schedule – which can involve leaving the house before 5 a.m. for a morning workout, then heading to the gym in the afternoon ahead of a second run in the evening – with overseeing the Nala Track Club, placing multiple demands on her time.
“Sometimes, I ask the question: ‘Why did I start this?’” says Ngugi.
But when she goes to the camp and sees young athletes enjoying their running, it makes the busy schedule seem worthwhile.
“I look at these girls and I see how happy they are,” says Ngugi, “and I remember myself when I was young. If someone didn’t help me, I wouldn’t be where I am.
“It motivates me and gives me pat on the back that what I’m doing is good.”