BOSTON MARATHON SPECIAL
By Elshadai Negash
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (Universal Sports) – It has never been an easy feat to win selection to the Ethiopian Olympic marathon squad. Ethiopian marathon runner Dire Tune, the 2008 Boston Marathon champion, found out last July just how competitive things can get when she tried to win a place on the country’s marathon team for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Ethiopia uses a complex selection system to pick its squad for major championships. Five runners are first selected based on finishing times in marathons across the globe. The runners then enter a training camp where selectors put them through multiple time trials and drills over a three-month period.
After winning Boston and running a personal best at the Houston Marathon, Tune entered training camp last year fourth fastest among five ladies vying for three coveted spots. But selectors picked her ahead of the faster Bezunesh Bekele (2nd in the 2008 Dubai Marathon). Tension started to grip the Ethiopian camp until it boiled over four weeks before the opening ceremony of the Beijing Games.
“We were in the team bus returning from training when the others [Bekele, Gete Wami, and Berhane Adere] started talking about how I did not deserve to compete in Beijing,” she said in an interview earlier this week at a hotel near her home in Ethiopia’s capital. “Bezunesh [Bekele] started to confront me and we started fighting on the bus. At the end, other people came over and separated us.”
But the problems continued. A few days later, Tune was returning to the team hotel in the center of Addis Ababa with her husband Kelil Aman and training partner Deriba Merga when they were confronted by fellow Ethiopian national team marathoner Tessema Abshiro, the husband of Bekele. After an angry exchange of words between Merga and Abshiro, the latter pointed a pistol at Merga. Abshiro was later detained by authorities and spent the night at a police station. He was released on bail a few days later after Merga chose not to press charges.
Tune did not comment on her current relationship with Bekele. The two plus Merga are scheduled to compete in the Boston Marathon on April 20 while Abshiro is scheduled to run in the London Marathon on April 26.
“The whole situation was really bad,” Tune recalled painfully. “It disturbed the team morale and affected our results very badly in Beijing. I finished 15th, but I missed almost a week of crucial training due to the problems.”
Before the incident, everything was going according to plan for Tune in a ground-breaking year. She had started the year by successfully defending her Houston Marathon title in Texas in a personal best to 2:24.40.
And in April, she surprised many observers by winning in Boston, becoming only the second Ethiopian to win the event. Fatuma Roba is the other.
“I was told that the course would very difficult, but I was confident of finishing in the top three because I trained well,” she says. “I run side-by-side to Russian [Aleventine Biktimirova] for a long time and when I saw the finishing tape, I just raced for the finish. I did not really look at the time. My main focus was to win the race. I was really happy to be winning in Boston.”
Two months later, Tune was selected by organizers of the Golden Spike meet in Ostrava, Czech Republic to attempt to better Kenyan Tegla Laroupe’s world one-hour record, a seldom run event that initially puzzled Tune.
“I talked with my coach on how to prepare for it,” she says. “We decided that we should continue training for it at marathon pace. As I prepared, my confidence grew and went to Ostrava happy with myself.”
Helped by four compatriots who worked tirelessly to keep Tune on course, the 25-year old salvaged the attempt in the last 30 minutes. By the end of the hour, Tune had run 18.517kms, 176m further than Laroupe’s mark.
“The Ostrava spectators were very helpful and great,” she said after smashing her first ever world record. “I am indebted to my coach who helped me with the splits. The crowd gave me the power to run so fast and I could even accelerate in the finish.”
Buoyed by her triumph, Tune prepared for her Olympic debut before she says, “everything went wrong. It had a negative influence on my results in Beijing. We were five athletes in the beginning [of the training camp] hoping to be selected, there was a worry as to who the selectors would pick. We spent much of our energy in training to try and prove ourselves. I did not have much energy left when I run in Beijing because I had exhausted almost everything in training. I am not happy about my performance in Beijing. It was really bad. I did not get what I expected.”
In her bid to win an Olympic place, Tune changed her normal training regimen to meet the demands of the selectors at the Ethiopian Athletics Federation (EAF). She said the training with the national program focused mainly on endurance and did not include other training aspects she is used to such as running in the forest, on the track, on grass, and on gravel roads.
She says the consequences were far reaching beyond Beijing. “I tried to change back to my own training style after Beijing,” she says. “But it was difficult. When I was prepared for the New York Marathon after Beijing, I suffered an injury because I was trying to change training in a short time. I tried to follow the leaders until 30km, but I started experiencing pain. I finished fifth in New York, but the damage was already done.”
It took Tune three months to resume her previous form. She returned to winning ways in February this year with victory in Ras Al Khamiah Half Marathon. Her 1:07:18 time smashed the two-year old Ethiopian half marathon record previously held by Bezunesh Bekele.
“I was looking for the world record there,” she says. “I am happy that I run an Ethiopian record but I would have loved to go under 1:07.10. It is good preparation for a full marathon.”
Boston is normally lower on the priority list of a runner like Tune who is eager to improve her personal best. So why is she returning to such a difficult course when she has ambitions of breaking into the Ethiopian team for the World Championships in Berlin? The selection process for Berlin is similar to the one used for Beijing.
“The organizers really wanted me to run there and my manager thinks it is also good for me,” she says. “I also think that I will go there happy because I won last year.”
Tune says she is confident of running faster than her winning time last year. “Something like 2:23,” she predicts.
Tune’s main aim is to erase nightmare performances in previous major championships for the Ethiopian team. In her last two world championships, she did not finish the race in Helsinki in 2005 and struggled to 37th in Osaka two years ago.
“Like every athlete, I want to compete at the world championships,” she says. “I know this will be difficult as there are runners who have done 2:21 this season. If it was up to me, I want to line up for my country in Berlin and revenge my Olympic failure. It will be difficult, but not impossible.”
If she does not make the Ethiopian team for the world championships, Tune’s focus will shift back to chasing fast times on the circuit. “Until now, I have been running difficult courses,” she says. “If I do not make the world championship team, I want to run the Berlin Marathon. I want to run under 2:20.”
(Elshadai Negash is a freelance athletics journalist based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.)