Feature09 Oct 2020

Twenty-two years since last World Half appearance, Kiekara ready for international return


Finnish distance runner Annemari Kiekara

Annemari Kiekara has vivid memories of the marathon at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games.

Her recollection, however, is not one of pounding the streets of the Australian city alongside the rest of the world’s best road runners on the biggest sporting stage. Instead, she was sat at home, watching the race on TV.

“I cried that night,” recalls Kiekara (nee Sandell). “I felt so sad and disappointed.”

Aged 23 at the time, the Finn had hoped that Sydney would be her second Olympics and an opportunity to improve on her finishing position from the Atlanta Games four years prior. On that occasion, while still a teenager, she finished 12th in the 10,000m after clocking a European U20 record of 31:40.42 in the heats – a record that still stands to this day.

Annemari Sandell (91) in action in the U20 race at the 1995 World Cross Country Championships


Before then, Kiekara had already established herself as one of the most exciting up-and-coming distance runners in the world. She made her international debut aged 13 at the 1990 World U20 Championships in Plovdiv, where she narrowly missed out on making the 3000m final.

Two years later, and still the youngest in the field by two years, she placed fifth in a high-quality 3000m final at the 1992 World U20 Championships, beaten only by Chinese duo Zhang Linli and Zhang Lirong – who went on to take senior world silver and bronze respectively one year later – and Romania’s Gabriela Szabo and Britain’s Paula Radcliffe.

While still among the U20 ranks, Kiekara competed at the World Championships in 1993 (finishing 13th over 3000m) and 1995 (placing ninth in the 10,000m). She also bookended the 1995 season by winning the world U20 cross-country title and senior European cross-country gold.

Annemari Sandell wins the U20 race at the 1995 World Cross Country Championships


“My fondest memories are from the World Cross Country Championships, becoming junior champion in 1995 and getting the senior bronze medal in 1999,” she says. “I’m also proud of my three medals from the European Cross Country Championships (gold in 1995, silver in 1998 and bronze in 1996).”

In her final season as an U20 athlete, Kiekara reduced her PBs to 8:48.36 for 3000m and 14:56.22 for 5000m. But although she was something of a prodigy, Kiekara says she rarely felt the pressure of expectation from fans or the media.

Paula Radcliffe and Annemari Sandell lead the women's race at the Great North Cross Country in Durham


“There were some expectations and pressure, but thankfully the media were very kind to me during that stage of my career,” says Kiekara.

“At the Atlanta Olympics, though, after setting a big PB in the 10,000m heats, several coaches said I had a great chance in the final. I ended up running the race in my mind so much that I felt mentally fatigued before the final.”

A new chapter

By the time she turned 21 at the start of 1998, Kiekara had already competed at four senior global championships on the track and three senior continental cross-country championships. With one eye on the 2000 Olympics, and a possible move up in distance, Kiekara started to turn her attention to the roads.

Catherina McKiernan (4), Liz McColgan (1) and eventual winner Annemari Sandell (2) in action at the Bupa International Road Race in Portsmouth


Not many athletes choose to make their half marathon debut at the World Half Marathon Championships, but Kiekara had regularly raced against the world’s best distance runners and wasn’t intimidated by the opposition at the 1998 event in the Swiss town of Uster.

Kiekara ran smartly and passed through 10km in 33:20, holding back from the fast initial pace set by defending champion Tegla Loroupe and Elana Meyer. Kiekara then put in a surge over the next five kilometres to move from 17th into the top six and maintained her momentum to the end, eventually finishing fifth in a national record of 1:10:04.

But despite the promising start to her career on the roads, Kiekara’s transition to road running was hampered by persistent hamstring injuries.

“When I competed at the 1998 World Half Marathon Championships, I thought my road-running career would take off from there,” she says. “But little more than a year later, in 2000, I started to struggle with bad hamstring problems.

“It took a really long time to fix my hamstrings. Physiotherapy initially didn’t help, so I underwent surgery in 2003. In hindsight, it probably should have been done earlier. I went on to have many more operations – four on my right hamstring and two on my left. Along with the injuries, I also took breaks from training when I had my children (born in 2004, 2007 and 2010).”

Since 2000, Kiekara hasn’t competed at any global championships on the track or road, and the stunning times she ran as an U20 remain her lifetime bests. Over time, her priority has shifted towards ensuring she can enjoy a long career in the sport.

Annemari Sandell-Hyvärinen takes the 2008 Nordic Cross Country title


It means less time on the track, more on the roads, and even more time devoted to prehab. But the approach is clearly working and this year, aged 43, Kiekara won the Finnish 5000m and 10,000m titles, finished second in both events at the Finnkampen Sweden vs Finland match, and clocked 1:13:56 for the half marathon.

“I love running, and I get so much from it, physically and psychologically,” she says. “Training has become a bit more challenging over time, but I try to make sure that I do my recovery runs very slow and I use a heart-rate monitor more than I used to. I also do a lot of physiotherapy at home and I use a Cellu M6 LPG device every day to help with injury prevention.

“I’ve been doing a few more track races this year because of my commitments with my club and the national federation, but these days I much prefer racing on the roads.”

Goals for Gdynia and beyond

Twenty-two years since her last appearance at the championships, Kiekara will head to Poland next week as Finland’s sole entrant for the World Athletics Half Marathon Championships Gdynia 2020.

Having been one of the youngest lining up in Uster in 1998, Kiekara will be among the oldest entered for this year’s championships. Indeed, some of the top contenders in Gdynia hadn’t even been born when Kiekara made her Olympic debut in 1996. But Kiekara is simply grateful to have another opportunity to represent Finland internationally.

“Back then, when I competed at my first World Half Marathon Championships, I had no idea that 22 years later I’d still be competing internationally,” she says. “It feels great to represent Finland again. I’m so thankful to have the chance to run again after such bad injuries. I’ve learned to always listen to my body, especially my legs.

“There are so many good runners competing in Gdynia, I know the competition will be really tough. But if everything goes well, I’d like to run somewhere in the region of 1:11 to 1:12.”

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And after the disappointment of 2000, Kiekara doesn’t rule out the possibility of making her long-awaited second Olympic appearance in 2021.

“My goal, if I can stay injury-free, is to qualify for the marathon at the Tokyo Olympics,” she says. “And if I can achieve that next year, then maybe I’ll start to think about the one after.”

Her main desire, though, is to be an example for other young talents in the sport and to show that, regardless of how early a career may peak, it’s still possible to enjoy a long and fulfilling career.

“I hope that young athletes are surrounded by trust-worthy people who advise them not to spend too much time reading what’s written about them in the media or posted on social media, because sometimes it’s not always nice or helpful.

“I’d like to show all young talented athletes that you can do so much when you really want to and don't give up,” she adds. “It’s also important to remember that there are other things in life outside of sport.”

Jon Mulkeen for World Athletics