Mary Ngugi Will Be Chasing Her Dreams on the Streets of NYC
On Sunday, November 3, Mary Ngugi of Kenya will run her first TCS New York City Marathon.
And she can’t wait.
“I’m more excited than you can imagine,” she said from her home in Nyahururu, where she’s in the midst of a three-month buildup, piling on 110-mile weeks, with long runs of up to 24 miles and intense interval and tempo sessions, all with a dedicated training group and under the supervision of her longtime coach, Francis Kamau.
“It’s been my dream to run the New York City Marathon,” said Ngugi, 30, who ran 1:11:07 to finish as the runner-up to Joyciline Jepkosgei at the 2019 United Airlines NYC Half. Previously in NYC she was second (2016) and third (2014) at the UAE Healthy Kidney 10K.
Three races, three podium finishes—not a bad record in the Big Apple. But the tantalizing thought of another top-three finish here on November 3—perhaps even breaking the tape—isn’t what’s driving Ngugi as she logs mile after hilly mile in the Kenyan highlands.
“To be honest, what motivates me every day in training is just the thought of being on the start line in New York,” she said.
This is the sort of heartfelt, relatable sentiment that Ngugi regularly shares with her 27,500 Instagram followers, making her one of the most popular Kenyan women runners on social media. A recent takeover of @nycmarathon generated nearly half a million impressions.
Ngugi’s posts reflect her open, positive, and forthright personality. She shares details of her training—her takeover included a day-by-day rundown of the previous week’s workouts, as well as videos, photos, and invitations for followers to ask questions and share their own sessions. Other posts feature her vacations, her 8-year-old daughter, and expressions of faith. “Every day is a gift from God and another chance to work hard toward achieving our goals and dreams,” she posted in May. “Dreams won’t catch themselves,” she writes frequently, a reminder to herself and others that distance running is a sport without shortcuts.
She believes that she gains as much as she gives by forging strong bonds with her fans. “At first I wasn’t sure how much to share on Instagram, but now I love being there,” she said. “I am grateful to my fans.” At the end of a long training week in August, she posted, “I never imagined that so many of you would be interested in my running and life over here in Kenya, and that I would receive so many amazing messages of support – I love it honestly, thank you!”
Ngugi has been a professional runner for over a decade. To date, her greatest successes have come at the half-marathon distance—she won the silver medal at the 2014 world championships and bronze in 2016. That same year, she ran 1:06:29 to win the Houston Half Marathon, which remains the fastest-ever performance on American soil.
It’s no surprise that Ngugi’s marathon debut, last April in Boston, was highly anticipated, and when she ran 2:28:33 to finish seventh, some onlookers were disappointed. For her part, Ngugi’s takeaway was positive. “Boston was an amazing experience,” she said. “I was very proud to be in the top ten.”
She was as humble as any Boston first-timer in her Instagram post the next day: “The course was so tough! There is no flat spells, and actually the downhills really do cause problems. Today my quads are on fire!”
As she prepares for New York, Ngugi is drawing on everything she learned during her Boston training. “Like in my Boston training, the speed is down a little these days,” she said. “Before I was a bit scared, but now I’m not worried about it. I know it is part of marathon training.”
Ngugi won’t race again before November 3, following Kamau’s advice to remain in Nyahururu and focus on training. “I’m very glad I ran the NYC Half as a tune-up for Boston, and it went very well, but this time we will just train and get my longest runs a little bit longer and harder,” she said. “I trust my coach in this.”
Ngugi began running as a preteen, gradually working her way from local to regional and finally national track and cross country meets in her late teens. “For many years I didn’t make it to nationals,” she said. Eventually a coach saw promise and invited her to a residential camp for rising stars.
“From there I made the world junior team,” she said. “You can’t stop once you get that opportunity. At first my mom didn’t want me to go—she didn’t understand it really, because no one in my family had ever been a professional athlete. But then she saw what it could do for me and she was supportive.”
Ngugi has chosen to remain in Kenya to be near her coach. “He cares about me as more than a runner—to him I’m a whole person,” she said of Kamau.
She also cherishes time with her family, which includes five brothers and two stepbrothers. “One of my brothers is getting into running,” she said. “He’s still learning—he will get better. My brothers are my best friends. I’m always safe with them.”
For Ngugi, the larger running community is her extended family. “When I had to leave my family for running, I got a new family,” she said. “Runners are very open and accepting. I feel like if you are a runner, wherever you go you can interact with people. Despite your culture, your religion, your background, you are accepted for who you are.”
She sees the New York City Marathon as the ultimate expression of this community. “It is a race that unites people and spreads peace,” she said.
For Ngugi, the race will also be an opportunity to solidify her status as a marathoner. “I hope I will be able to run the New York City Marathon many times. I know much more about the marathon now than I did before Boston, but I’ve only ever watched New York on TV. I will learn a lot from running the course,” she said. Her goal on November 3 is the same one she set for Boston: “I want to finish and do myself proud.”
And every day from now until November 3, Mary Ngugi will chase that dream.