Olympian Out For a 600m record at Zátopek:10
Olympian Bendere Oboya is only 23 years old but she’s coming out of retirement with a record attempt in the women’s 600m at Zátopek:10 this Saturday.
A recent recruit to the On Athletics Club Oceania, Oboya has already packed more into her career than most runners will in a lifetime. In her teens, she made herself known as a 400m specialist and quickly progressed from NSW state juniors to junior nationals (where she won the 400m title in 2017) and on to the 2017 Commonwealth Youth Games, the 2018 Commonwealth Games, the 2019 World Championships (where she set her PR when she clocked 51.21 in the heats) and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (held, of course, in 2021). At different times, she was ranked as the second fastest under-18 in the world and the third fastest under-20 in Australian history, behind Cathy Freeman and Jana Pittman.
She also had to deal with an acrimonious split from her first coach before moving on to train for Tokyo with John Quinn. Changes came after Tokyo when she moved from Sydney to Melbourne to pursue the 800m in Justin Rinaldi’s Fast 8 squad, alongside the likes of Peter Bol and Justin Deng. During this period, she even found time to participate in the SBS documentary Run Girl, which explores her track career and her personal story – with her family, Oboya came to Australia from Ethiopia as a refugee at the age of three.
But the transition to Melbourne and the 800m didn’t entirely go to plan, and at some stage Oboya decided to withdraw from running.
As she tells it, “I did my first season with Justin; I went overseas, and I struggled so much. Then I decided to come back and … that's when I did go and retire. I still call it a break, but I signed retirement forms, so I did actually retire.”
She re-emerged around May this year when she began training with OAC Oceania under coach Craig Mottram.
“It feels very fresh,” Bendere says during our slightly choppy video call. She’s dialling in from Falls Creek, where she’s doing her first ever altitude training, with the OAC group, before Zátopek:10. Understandably, the connection is what it is.
“I cannot wait to put on my spikes and get ready to compete. It's like I'm jumping into a whole other phase in my life, where I've had the experience behind me and now I know what to do, know what not to do … It should be really, really fun.”
Training with Mottram and the OAC has been a change of pace – and distances – for Oboya.
“My training that I do with Craig's a lot different than what I was doing with Justin. So I had to sit myself down and say, ‘If you want to come back, you need to put in everything.’
“It started with the 3K runs, and if you know me you know my longest was literally a lap. So I had to come from that to doing 3K runs, 3K warm ups. And then the sessions started getting trickier, like 1K reps which I had never done. At some point, I was doing 2K reps and I was like, ‘Oh boy, I don't know how I'm going to do this.’”
“Coming to Falls, I was walking into the unknown because I've never done altitude training before. I’ve done more Ks here than I ever did in Melbourne, but I’ve adapted quite well – I got into the routine of things quickly.”
Bendere is looking forward to the Zátopek:10 meet, where she’ll compete in her first 600m race. She’s expecting a huge lift from the crowd and the energy that the event’s new status as one of the global On Track Nights series will bring.
“I think the 600m is like, for me, it's so weird saying it, but I could do a four and I'm never tired after a four. So we'll see what we can do with the extra 200 metres added on. I think it'll be fun. I think it'll be really fun."
“I haven't actually done one [a 600m] at a competition. I've done a 300m, which is totally different. I feel like with a 600m you could be strategic with it, depending on your abilities. I see it as a sprint. I mean, you sprint the 400m – you can treat bits of it [the 600m] like the back straight of a 400m, depending on where you want to relax and stuff. But I do think it's an all-out race, so we'll see what happens.
“And I think that the atmosphere will just make us go a lot faster. Having people on the infield, having people on the bridge – it's going to be a huge advantage, and I literally lift every time I hear that kind of noise.”
Even though she’s never run 600 metres in an official race, Oboya has her sights on Tamsin Manou's 2012 Australian record of 1:25.79. After some recent sessions in spikes, she’s confident she has the speed to do it.
“I'm not going to lie. After I hit what I hit at training a couple of days ago, I was like, ‘Yeah, let's do this.’ It's just up to what happens with the weather and everything else … we all know how lakeside is. Regardless of that, I'm just going to go for it.”
As an unusual distance, the 600m on Saturday should be viewed as part of Oboya’s progression from the 400m to the 800m. Asked why she moved up in distances when she was doing so well in the 400m, Bendere says it was about challenging herself.
“I was at a stage with the 400m where my streak, I think it was 34 or 41, I don't know exactly many races I won in around two years … I wouldn't say I was getting bored of the 400m but you look at the depth of the 800m and you want to be into that – you want to be in the mix. Well, I do, being someone that just likes going after things.
“And I'm not knocking off the 400m. I still think correct training can make me run a fast 400. I still have my speed there. Now we've just backed it up with all this base training that I've done, so I definitely think that my 400 can get faster.”
As they do for other elite Australian runners, the Paris Olympics loom on the horizon. For now though, Bendere’s focus is on health and steady gains.
“For my path to Paris, we haven't talked about any race. I think for me, the most important thing, at the start when I joined Craig, was to get healthy, stay healthy, keeping that mindset right there.
“I feel like if I get too ahead of myself, there'll be little disappointments and stuff on the way to Paris. First, I just need to get out there – it's been a while.
“I’ll get out there and see what I can do with all the strength, with all the training I've been doing. From then on, I think little goals will come along the way – and then the big goal is Paris, so we'll see what happens.”