She’s won seven marathons in 18 months.
Written by: Sabrina Grotewold
This piece appears in the November issue of Competitor Magazine.
Making it in New York City is a daunting task no matter what the goal. And for petite, prolific road racer Buzunesh Deba of Ethiopia, that mission is to win the 2011 ING New York City Marathon.
A resident of the Bronx for the majority of the six years—she took two sojourns to train at altitude in Arizona and New Mexico—that she has lived in the U.S., the 24-year-old aspires to be the first NYC-based athlete to win the prestigious race since it expanded into the five boroughs in 1976. Although Deba has home field advantage and has run the race twice before—she finished seventh in 2009 and 10th in 2010—she’ll face formidable competition on Nov. 6, like defending champion and world championships marathon gold medalist Edna Kiplagat of Kenya. Coincidentally, Kiplagat won the 2010 Honda L.A. Marathon eight months before her surprising victory last year in New York; this year, Deba persevered through a drafty downpour to break the tape at the L.A. Marathon in 2:26:34. Both women have also shown remarkable improvement since their husbands, who’ve put their own competitive careers on hold, began to coach them.
The payoff began for Deba in December 2009, when a win at the California International Marathon sparked an 18-month stream of victories in distances ranging from the mile to the marathon; she was the first woman to win the Grandma’s and Twin Cities marathons in the same year. The Rock ‘n’ Roll San Diego Marathon bookended her year-and-a-half tear: Deba delighted husband Worku Beyi, whose marathon PR is 2:25:07, when she won the race in 2:23:31, the fastest 26.2 miler ever run on California soil. Confident that his protégé was in shape to run 2:25, Beyi nearly fell off the press truck as he watched Deba rocket through the first 15K under 2:20 pace.
“The second half was a little hilly; my foot burned a little and the sun was very strong in the last four miles, so I slowed down,” the bashful Deba, who normally prefers to let her husband do the talking, whispered after the race.
By August, Deba revealed that the burning sensation in her foot had subsided; she started ramping up for New York in July. Beyi doesn’t plan to mess with success: Deba’s training remains similar to previous marathon build-ups, only with quicker intervals and less racing. Alternating high-volume weeks of 130 miles total with speed weeks, which include three speed sessions sandwiched between recovery jogs and two long runs and the total mileage hovers around 100, Deba has raced only one half-marathon—the Rock ‘n’ Roll Philadelphia Half-Marathon, where she finished third in 1:09:55—to prepare for New York. It’s a welcome change that she had to earn. While African elites usually train at home with the support of their villages, and a few talented American elites prepare for marathons with the help of coaches, physiologists, nutritionists, sports psychologists, therapists and the latest technology, Deba and Beyi lean on each other.
Like many of their Ethiopian brethren who run for New York City local teams Westchester Track Club or the West Side Runners, Deba and Beyi are part of a cycle that brings promising runners to the East Coast with hopes of securing a green card, winning enough local races to send money back home and living in the Bronx—often three, four or five to one tiny apartment. The couple, who met in Asela, Ethiopia, when Deba was 14, got married in 2005 and were lured to New York by Beyi’s cousin, Atalelech Asfaw, a well-connected Westchester Track Club runner. In their first couple of years in the U.S., Beyi and Deba joined a swelling competitive Ethiopian circle and competed often on the road race circuit—sometimes two or three races a weekend—to earn money. Beyi also earned extra income by pacing workouts for other local running clubs. Last year, his competitive hopes were hampered by a nagging hamstring injury and chest pains—the root of which remains undiagnosed: “If I don’t run under 4:40 pace, I won’t make money,” Beyi said. “I can still run, but my chest will hurt when I run at this pace. But, I can train at Buzu’s pace.”
After Deba’s 2010 banner year and a new Mizuno sponsorship, the couple is able to live in their own apartment and enjoy being full-time runners—a life that leaves little time for other jobs, school or raising children, a topic that makes Deba’s eyes sparkle and caused Beyi to blurt: “Oh my god, she loves kids very much. But she’s very focused right now on running.”
So focused on running that she recently outran her husband. “Do you know what she did to me?” Beyi gasped, laughing. “Two weeks ago when we ran 31 miles, she dropped me at mile 28. She’s crazy!”
It’s hard to predict a marathon champion, as it often comes down to who’s having the best day on race morning, but dropping a companion during a long run is a good sign.