Will Run for Food

Based in the Bronx, some of the most successful athletes you've never heard of live to run away with your club money

If you're not among the very elite in races like New York's, you might as well be with the walkers in the back at a six-hour pace. Such is the harsh reality of distance running.

But still, Endale wanted to help his friend by giving him a water bottle from the sidewalk—a chancy move, given the security along the route.

When Awol appeared, he was a hazy, narrow figure at the crest of a hill. He was running in about 14th place, high enough that he still had a chance to crack the top 10—rare company. There are, after all, 40,000 runners in the event.

Runners like Genna Tufa (above) and Joseph Ekuom live simply that they might take your trophy away.
Jesse Reed
Runners like Genna Tufa (above) and Joseph Ekuom live simply that they might take your trophy away.
Coach Mike Barnow’s biggest challenge is getting his racers to slow down.
Jesse Reed
Coach Mike Barnow’s biggest challenge is getting his racers to slow down.

Endale called to his friend, but Awol was running on the other side of the wide roadway and didn't see him. Endale knew the police weren't about to allow him to run across the road and hand Awol his bottle.

So he turned to cross over to Fifth Avenue at mile 23, where the runners come after a short trip to the Bronx. The Fifth Avenue section features a long, slow, tortuous uphill climb that often shatters the lead pack.

Once the leaders had passed—Marilson Gomez Dos Santos of Brazil and Abderrahim Goumri of Morocco—and a few others, Awol appeared again. He was now running in 13th place. This time, Endale was able to hand him the bottle. Awol held the bottle for a few lengths, took a single, birdlike sip, and let it slide from one hand. The bottle rolled into the gutter, but by then, Awol had vanished over the next rise.

Crisis averted, Endale relaxed.

Awol's 13th-place finish (and first "local" runner across the line) is even more remarkable because he had no place to stay the night before the race. While the elite runners are put up at the marathon's expense in a posh hotel, Awol had to scramble—and ended up sharing a bed with another runner.

Awol's teammate, Kassahun Kabiso, who drives a cab in his spare time, finished 14th. It was Kabiso's sixth marathon this year—he won two of them and never finished lower than 17th.

Deresse Deniboba, the man who gave up half his bed to Awol, finished 20th, while Genna Tufa finished 16th and a training partner, Teklu Tefera Deneke, finished 18th.

And although Awol and Kabiso finished only seconds behind the South African runner and 2004 marathon winner Hendrik Ramaala, who is sponsored by Adidas, each man had run another marathon just a few weeks earlier.

Awol (who made $5,000 for his performance) and Kabiso finished ahead of several top American runners, including Jacob Frey, who is sponsored by the shoe company Saucony. And they defeated Toshiya Katayama, a Japanese Olympian.

"Awol made the mistake of running with the lead pack for 14 miles," says Mike Barnow, a grizzled New Paltz track coach who manages and wrangles the WTC's Bronx African distance contingent. "If he was less aggressive, he might have placed even higher."

On the very same weekend, two of their teammates—Elijah Kitur and Joseph Ekuom—took an overnight bus to New Hampshire, napped on someone's floor, and then finished first and second, respectively, in the Manchester Half Marathon. They ran about two minutes faster than the first American finisher.

Two others, Abraham Ng'etich and Solome Kosgei, took a bus to Virginia, where they won their respective divisions in a five-miler. Kosgei was racing with just seven weeks' training, only six months after giving birth, and she finished six minutes ahead of the first American woman.

On the previous weekend, the WTC men were three of the top-10 finishers in the Boston Mayor's Cup race and won the team division. Kitur tied for fourth.

In the women's race in Boston, Aziza Aliyu and Kosgei took second and third. Aliyu, just 21, won seven consecutive races earlier this year, and, in a New Jersey 10K, she defeated the legendary Kenyan Catherine Ndereba, a four-time winner of the Boston Marathon, a silver medalist at the Beijing Olympics, and the second-fastest female marathoner of all time.

Yet despite all of those high finishes, every one of them is nearly anonymous, even to many people who run obsessively and watch and participate in races. They rack up good results in places all around the country, year after year.

But after the Gebreselassies and Ronos and Lagats have broken the finishing tape, the rest that stream in might as well have pulled their names from a phonebook.

While the organizers of the marathon go out of their way to invite elite racers from around the world, Barnow says they give only modest recognition to the incredible talent base of international runners who already live in the city.

"Yes, they have made their homes in the Bronx, but it's not quite right to call them 'local.' It's really as if Kenya and Ethiopia have moved to New York."

On a recent afternoon, three Kenyan runners relax in their modest apartment near Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. Five runners—four male, one female—actually live here. The place is so sparsely furnished that it looks as if they could move out in about five minutes, if necessary.

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