By Paul Gains
A year ago Aberu Mekuria arrived in Ottawa with little fanfare and almost no pressure, a blessed underdog to her more famous Ethiopian compatriots. Against the odds she raced to victory and a $30,000 pay day in this IAAF Gold Label race.
It will be a different scenario when the 32 year old defends her Scotiabank Ottawa Marathon title May 29th as she will be a well-respected favourite amongst a world-class field.
Still, it would be foolish to believe Mekuria will crumble under the pressure, after all, she won major marathons in Hengshui (China), Eindhoven and Cologne before Ottawa. It was with a healthy dose of confidence she recently addressed her primary objective for her return to the Canadian capital.
"I am planning to run sub 2:25. Definitely, I am after a new personal best," she declared. "My goal for the Ottawa Marathon this year is to deliver a nice performance, better performance than ever before and win the race again.
"My training is going well and I am focusing on my daily and weekly training programs as I want to do my best. I am very happy with speed work and things are looking good. I am training with my friends who are working with Ikaika Sports (her management company). And we have very good team spirit, sharing experiences with strong athletes, like Betelhem Moges and Ashete Bekere among others."
Those are two young and talented marathoners she has for training partners. Moges won both the 2014 Amsterdam and 2015 Beijing marathons and has a best of 2:24:29. Bekere has run the distance in 2:23:43. Together, the group trains at various sites outside Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, such as Entoto, Sendafa, Ararat and Sululta. Mekuria particularly enjoys the latter because it is at a slightly higher elevation, roughly 2800m.
Mekuria’s personal best remains the 2:25:30 she recorded when she stepped over the finish line near Ottawa City Hall. And, she fondly recalls her greatest victory. With only five hundred metres remaining she pulled ahead of Kenya’s Rebecca Chesir and suddenly put eleven seconds between them. The heavily favoured Meselech Melkamu (2:21:01 personal best) was a badly beaten 5th.
"It was relatively easy for me to win Ottawa Marathon last year, as I was well-prepared with lots of work being done for several months before the race," she recalls.
"I remember slight ups and downs of the Ottawa Marathon course and, of course, the course was so fantastic for me and it worked well for me."
The cold and windy conditions, however, may well have prevented her from beating fellow Ethiopian Tigist Tufa’s course record of 2:24:31, set in 2014.
Like many of Ethiopia’s top runners, Mekuria was born in Bekoji the town celebrated in the documentary "Town of Runners." It lies roughly 220 kilometres southeast of Addis. The Dibaba sisters, Derartu Tulu, the 1992 Olympic 10,000m champion and Kenenisa Bekele, a three time Olympic champion, are all from Bekoji.
"I moved to Addis Ababa in July 2009," Mekuria explains. "I moved to Addis to continue with training and focus on my athletics career. I was encouraged to come to Addis Ababa by my club, Oromia Police Sport Club.
"I have three brothers and two sisters. All of them are living in Bekoji and I try to see them as often as I can. As I am devoted to my athletic career and as I am mostly in Addis Ababa, I haven’t ample time to be with my family. But I often spend time with them during holiday seasons and between marathons."
Most elite runners in Ethiopia train very early in the morning gathering at a rural training site before the sun rises. Transportation is usually provided by the managers and coaches or the runners car pool from their homes in the city. In order to be ready to train runners must sometimes rise at 4:00 a.m. Mekuria takes the bus operated by Ikaika Sports for the thrice weekly training sessions.
After training Mekuria goes home to rest until the next training session. Her commitment to her athletics career is evident. Often she will go to church on Sundays and occasionally in the afternoon. Dining with friends is another departure from the constant slog of training.
"I like going to dinner on special occasions at the Ararat Hotel, as the hotel is very close to my home in Addis," she says. "And, yes, I sometimes go to the (famous) Yod Abyssinia Restaurant to have fun and to enjoy traditional Ethiopian music and dances with some of my friends. I mostly prefer to eat Ethiopian traditional foods - Doro Wot (spicy chicken stew) is one of my favorite foods. I truly enjoy it."
Recently Ethiopia, like many countries, has come under fire for a handful of doping cases. Mekuria clearly detests the position in which Ethiopian athletes have been placed by cheats.
"I feel very sorry and shocked to hear that some of my rivals were using banned drugs," she responds. "This negatively impacts the image of Ethiopian athletes and it has a very negative impact on the development of our sport."
Mekuria understands she is nearing the end of her racing career and is unsure of what she will do in retirement. In a country where the per capita income is near $650 annually, runners are amongst the highest earners. Others from Bekoji have used their earnings from marathon racing to start businesses. Bekele, Tulu and Tirunesh Dibaba have built hotels, for instance.
"Apart from running I have no other business yet," she reveals, "but I have a dream to be investing in various businesses like the other popular Ethiopian athletes. Simply put, I don’t know the time when I will retire. For as long as I am capable of running, I want to keep on running."
Victory in the 2016 Scotiabank Ottawa Marathon will certainly afford a more comfortable retirement as well as a happy future.