Three decades ago, the East African domination of marathon running began with both quality and quantity of great runners increasing exponentially. It can also be said they have shifted the goal posts when it comes to frequency of racing the ‘classic distance.’
When Ethiopia’s Girmay Birhanu lines up for the 2015 Scotiabank Ottawa Marathon May 24th – an IAAF Silver Label once again – it will be his fourth marathon in seven months. The astonishing rate would buckle the knees of most westerners but Birhanu serves up quality performances every time he races.
With a personal best of 2:05:49 from the 2014 Dubai Marathon, where he placed 3rd, the now 28 year old has traveled the world seeking fast races and a pay cheque. Like many of his countrymen blessed with running talent, he intends to retire and start a business in a few years.
On April 5th of this year, Birhanu won the Daegu Marathon in Korea with a time of 2:07:26, almost a minute ahead of his nearest rival. Lest one think that seven weeks between marathons is insane, we are reminded that a year ago Yemane Tsegaye came to Ottawa having won Daegu, then proceeded to smash the course and Canadian All-Comers’ record with a time of 2:06:54.
“Yes I have recovered well and now started normal training,” Birhanu reports after being asked the obvious question. “Entoto, Sendafa, Sululta I like to train in all of those places. I am training with Gebretsadik Abraha (personal best of 2:06:21) and many other young athletes. My Coach is Baye Asefa.”
In January he returned to Dubai where he finished 8th in 2:08:56 in a race where Ethiopians filled the top 10 places. As far as races go, it was probably his least impressive performance in two years, but Daegu proved he is on the rebound.
Last October he also won the Beijing Marathon in 2:10:42 on a day when the city’s Environmental Centre warned participants about the excessive level of smog. Indeed, the majority of the 30,000 runners wore masks to protect themselves against the particles floating in the air. Despite the poor conditions Birhanu was satisfied with the outcome.
“It was not very hard to run; the biggest problem was that we didn’t have good pacers,” he says of that memorable day. “I would have been able to do better if the pacers and the weather was good. But I was pleased with my victory.”
On that note he sends an advisory comment to Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend organisers.
“I am able to run the Ottawa course record but the organizers must have good pace makers,” he declares. “I know it is a good course and usually good weather.”
Born in the northern Ethiopia region of Tigry, his parents are farmers. He moved to Addis Ababa to pursue a running career after being inspired by the exploits of the legendary Haile Gebrselassie, the two-time Olympic 10,000m champion and holder of 27 world records. Although he has never met Gebrselassie, he remains encouraged by the master’s unsurpassed career.
As a member of the Ethiopian Defence Force Sports Club, Birhanu is provided with accommodations in Addis. He likes to drive himself to training sites with a car he bought from race earnings.
He will travel to Ottawa with his compatriot Meselech Melkamu who is also managed by Wellay Amare, an Ethiopian sports agent. When he won Daegu last month, Melkamu was the fastest woman on the day recording a time of 2:27:24 two minutes ahead of her nearest rival. With a personal best time of 2:21:01 (Frankfurt 2012), she was clearly running well within herself.
“I have good luck when Meselech and I are traveling together,” Birhanu says pointedly.
The pair hope that their luck will continue in Ottawa. But the fields, once again, are worthy of respect.
Birhanu will face fellow Ethiopians Dadi Yami (2:05:41 best from the 2012 Dubai Marathon), Deriba Merga, the 2009 Boston Marathon winner and current Ottawa 10K course record holder, who has a best of 2:06:38, and Chala Dechase who has a personal best of 2:06:33. Dechase finished just ahead of him in Dubai this year. Meanwhile Kenyan fortunes rest with Alfers Lagat (2:07:11) and Peter Kirui (2:06:31).
The women’s field is also very strong with Ethiopians Yeshi Esayias, the 2012 and 2013 Ottawa winner, and Abebech Afework (2:23:33 in Dubai earlier this year) facing Agnes Kiprop of Kenya. The latter has a personal best of 2:23:54 and so all are capable of getting under the course record of 2:24:31 set by recent London Marathon winner Tigist Tufa a year ago.
The 2015 Scotiabank Ottawa Marathon promises to be another great race for both men and women. Course records are quite possible. One thing is for sure and that is the leaders will be from East Africa and will delight spectators and organisers once again.
Meselech Melkamu ETHIOPIA
Melkamu, 30, has a superb personal best in the marathon of 2:21:01 set at the 2012 Frankfurt Marathon. A complete distance runner, she has run 3,000m in 8:23.74 and was the African Champion at 5,000m. In addition, she has won three individual bronze medals at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships as well as the 10,000m silver medal at the 2009 IAAF World Athletics Championships in Berlin. A year ago, she finished 2nd in the Dubai Marathon. On April 5th, she comfortably won the Daegu Marathon in a time of 2:27:24. She is from the same training group as Girmay Birhanu.
Abebech Afework ETHIOPIA
Just 24 years old, Afework made her marathon debut at the 2013 Dubai marathon then went on to finish 2nd in Rotterdam the same year. Her confidence growing, she won the 2014 Houston Marathon and finished 5th in Berlin last fall. This year has started out well. Afework set a new personal best with a 2:23:33 clocking in Dubai (January 23rd) and then, as a test of fitness for Ottawa, she ran the Yangzhou Half Marathon in 1:09:14.
Agnes Kiprop KENYA
This 35-year-old mother of two young children is also a seasoned marathoner having recorded a personal best time of 2:23:54 in Frankfurt four years ago. A year ago she finished 3rd in Ottawa a little disappointed. If she is healthy she will be a force to be reckoned with. Kiprop has a history of Typhoid and dropped out of the 2012 Boston Marathon because of a bout with the disease.
Yeshi Esayias ETHIOPIA
A two-time winner in Ottawa (2012 and 2013 when she set a course record of 2:25:31) this year marks her fifth appearance in the nation’s capital. She has a personal best of 2:24:06 from the 2013 Frankfurt marathon. Since turning to the marathon in 2007, she has won Daegu twice, Marrakech twice and finished second in Tokyo. Earlier this year she placed 6th in the Tokyo marathon in 2:30:15 and will be expecting a much better performance in Ottawa.
Sultan Haydar TURKEY
This 27 year old knocked three minutes off her best time at the 2015 Dubai Marathon in January recording a time of 2:24:44. Although she was born in Ethiopia she represented her adopted country at the London Olympics and also at the 2013 IAAF World Championships in Moscow. She will celebrate her 28th birthday on May 23rd the eve of the Scotiabank Ottawa Marathon. Haydar started out as competitive race walker in Ethiopia.
Girmay Birhanu ETHIOPIA
An ambitious 28 year old, Ottawa will be his fourth marathon in seven months. In April he won the Daegu marathon in 2:07:26 almost a minute ahead of his nearest rival. His best performance came at the 2014 Dubai Marathon where he ran 2:05:49 to finish 3rd. He hopes to beat the course record of 2:06:54 set last year by his former training partner Yemane Tsegay.
Dadi Yami ETHIOPIA
With a personal best of 2:05:41 from the 2012 Dubai marathon, Yami is clearly one of the contenders to win here in Ottawa. Training at home with the famed Ethiopian coach, Getaneh Tessema, the 32 year old has demonstrated a return to top shape after a disappointing 2014. In March he ran a decent time of 2:08:05 to finish 4th at the Seoul International Marathon.
Alfers Lagat KENYA
Another potential podium finisher is this 28 year old Kenyan. After running to a personal best of 2:07:11 at the 2014 Eindhoven marathon, Lagat turned his attention to Ottawa. A half marathon of 60:33 on March 22 at the Venlo Half Marathon (Holland) showed his preparation is on schedule.
Peter Kirui KENYA
A contender for top honours in Ottawa, the 27-year-old Kirui has a best time of 2:06:31 recorded at the 2011 Frankfurt marathon. He represented his country at the IAAF World Championships that same year finishing 6th in the 10,000m with a superb time of 27:25.63. A consistent performer at the half marathon distance in three of the past four years, he has dipped under on hour for the distance. A year ago he ran a personal best 59:22 for the distance in Prague. On March 28th he returned to the Czech capital and ran a very good 61:17 in preparation for Ottawa.
Chala Dechase ETHIOPIA
It has been five years since Chala Dechase, now 31, recorded his very fine personal best of 2:06:33 at the Dubai marathon. A few mediocre years followed but if his performance in the 2015 Dubai marathon (January 23) is any indication, he is once again ready to tackle world-class fields. He ran 2:08:11 in Dubai. He is a former winner of the Great Ethiopian Run, Africa’s largest road race, which was founded by the great Haile Gebrselassie.