After Breaking The American Half Marathon Record, Weini Kelati Aims For Success at World Cross Country and an Olympic Team Berth

by Rich Sands

Weini Kelati competes at the World Athletics Cross-Country Championships on March 30, 2024 in Belgrade, Serbia. (Photo by USATF)

Late in the Houston Half Marathon on January 13, Weini Kelati was surprised how good she was feeling. It was her first time racing the 13.1-mile (21.1-kilometer) distance and she didn’t know what to expect. A few days earlier, Hellen Obiri, a world champion from Kenya who was also in the field, told her that she might expect the struggle to begin at about 16 kilometers (10 miles).

“I was thinking about it during the race, but when I started it felt very easy because I’ve gotten used to a very fast pace on the track,” says Kelati, an accomplished track runner who has emerged as one of the top Americans in the 5000- and 10,000-meter events. “But when you go to the half marathon your pace slows down a little bit and that helps a lot. When I got to 16K I did start to get tired, but it was fine.”

And despite it being her debut at the distance, she ended up breaking the American record, finishing fourth in 1 hour, 6 minutes and 25 seconds, improving Keira D’Amato’s standard from 2023 by 13 seconds.

“It got pretty windy at the end, but I was really happy when I saw the time at the finish line,” she says.

And in a sign of incredible fitness, Kelati returned to racing six days later for the USATF Cross Country Championships in Richmond, Virginia. Even a sickness that came on after the Houston race didn’t deter her. She didn’t run for a few days, but by mid-week was feeling ready.

“After I ran the half marathon I was like, this is just a 6-mile race, I can do that,” she says with a laugh. “I didn’t want to miss trying to make the team for worlds.”

She won the 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) event by 37 seconds and secured a spot on Team USA for the upcoming World Athletics Cross Country Championships in Belgrade, Serbia. Now she’s hoping to make an impact in the March 30 race, which traditionally brings together some of the top runners in the world — middle distance runners, marathoners, and everyone in-between — to battle over demanding terrain.

Kelati has always thrived in cross country, winning the Foot Locker Cross Country high school national championship in 2014 and the NCAA title in 2019. Last year, in her first appearance racing for Team USA, she finished 21st at Worlds.

“I’m the person who likes a very challenging race,” she says of her success. “If the pace is hard, it plays in my favor. If the course is really hard, I like it that way.”

Weini Kelati competes at the World Athletics Cross-Country Championships on March 30, 2024 in Belgrade, Serbia. (Photo by USATF)

And her growing credentials in international competition — she finished 7th in the 5K at last year’s World Athletics Road Running Championships — have added to her confidence.

“I don’t have a fear about lining up the best in the world,” says Kelati, who trains in Flagstaff, Arizona, with coach Stephen Haas as part of the Under Armour Mission Run Dark Sky Distance team. “I respect them and I think it’s crazy that I’m now racing some of these people I used to see on TV. But I’m excited to go hard and see what I can do with them. I feel like if I work hard and push myself and there’s no doubt that I can get a good result.”

The increased mileage she logged while training for the half marathon has improved her stamina, and she expects to try the full marathon in the next few years.

“After I run four or five half marathons, I’m going to move up to the marathon,” she says. “I know I can do it, but I don’t want to jump to it until I build my strength.”

Of course, this year’s prime focus is to earn a spot on the Olympic team for Paris. In the past two years, Kelati missed making the squad for the world championships by one place, finishing fourth in the 5000 at the 2022 USATF Outdoor Championships and the 10,000 in 2023.

“I was really sad that I didn’t make the team, but the race doesn’t always go as planned,” she admits. “You have good days and bad days and sometimes you’re a little bit short of your goals. But I just keep going.”

The U.S. Olympic Team Trials – Track & Field will be held in June at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon, and if she finishes in the top three, she will be book her ticket to Paris. She has already hit the Olympic qualifying time in the 10,000 by running 30:33.82 on March 16, making her the sixth fastest American woman of all time.

Weini Kelati competes at the World Athletics Cross-Country Championships on March 30, 2024 in Belgrade, Serbia. (Photo by USATF)

This will actually be Kelati’s second Olympic Trials. In 2021 she ran the 10,000 at Hayward Field just days after earning U.S. citizenship. In the wake of that emotional moment, she was unable to finish the race, but she was grateful to have the opportunity to line up.

In July 2014, Kelati was in that same Oregon stadium running in the World Junior Championships for her native Eritrea, which has an extremely repressive government with a dismal human rights record. After the meet, she made the agonizing decision to seek asylum in the U.S. She moved to Leesburg, Virginia, living with relatives and attending Heritage High School. The transition to a new culture and learning a new language was daunting, and Kelati desperately missed her family back home.

But she showed remarkable resilience, developing into one the top high school runners in the country and earning a scholarship to the University of New Mexico, where she won NCAA titles and was a 13-time All-American. When she finally earned citizenship, she had the flexibility to travel and reconnect with her family, and in 2022 she spent three weeks with her mother.

“For eight years, I couldn’t sleep a full eight hours like normal people,” she recalled in an essay for Runner’s World after she returned to the U.S. from that trip. “Worrying about my family would come into my mind. I’d stay up late and wake up exhausted. But after seeing her, I felt relieved. I was finally able to get a good night’s sleep.”

Even as Kelati is ready for another attempt at the U.S. Olympic Team she understands that the bigger picture is much more important.

“I can’t believe it’s been 10 years already since I came to the United States,” she says. “I have so many adverse situations, like missing my family, and adapting to everything, and all of that, but I am so thankful and grateful for the opportunity that I have to live in the United States and chase my dream. Every year brings joy and I’m enjoying it. I love to see what the future holds for me.”