Four years ago Sisay Jisa Mekonnen burst upon the world marathoning scene with a stunning debut at the 2012 Paris Marathon.
Jisa’s third place performance in a time of 2:06:27 caught many observers off guard. But the result was not a surprise to his many training partners, whom he entertains with his quick wit and sense of humour.
Now the 33-year-old Ethiopian turns his attention to the 2016 Beirut Marathon November 13th - an IAAF Silver Label Road Race - where he expects to challenge defending champion Jackson Limo on the streets of Lebanon’s capital.
“My training is going very well,” Jisa said from his home in Addis Ababa. “I am very ready for the event and I am happy with my preparation under Coach Haji. It has been very good. I will run what God plans for me that day in Beirut.
“I train daily with Coach Haji Adillo's group with Lelisa Desisa, Tadese Tola, Tilahun Regassa, Tariku Jufar, Solomon Deksisa and many others.”
Adillo’s group is truly a who’s who of Ethiopian distance running. Desisa, for instance, is a two-time Boston Marathon champion while Tadese Tola has a best marathon time of 2:04:49. Mixing with such talent can only have a positive effect on Jisa.
Late start, fast learner
On a normal day as many as one hundred and forty athletes will meet the coach at 6:30 a.m. in rural areas such as Sendafa, about a thirty-five minute drive outside Addis Ababa. Because of his unusually long hair, which he puts into ‘corn rows’ when racing, Jisa has been nicknamed ‘Sherube’ by his compatriots.
Clearly Jisa has only tapped the surface of his amazing potential. A late start to distance running - he was a talented handball player as a teenager - means he doesn’t have as many miles in his legs as his age would suggest. Still, there have been a couple of fallow years following the early success.
The Paris result earned him an invitation to run the 2013 Berlin Marathon but he could manage just a 12th place finish in a time of 2:12:17. Two months later, while being treated for a sore achilles tendon, he won the Guangzhou Marathon in China with a time of 2:11:20. Jisa has a valid explanation for his inability to have improved upon his Paris time.
“After Paris in 2012 I saw much success in marathons,” he remembers. “I won one and was on the podium in some other events. I had a lot of success and then I got married and started a family. We also built our home in Addis Ababa and I took time to build my family. I did have a small time when I was injured in 2014 but I am back to full capacity now.”
Focus on his family
Construction projects are something he is more than familiar with. When an athletics coach advised him to take up running he was busy helping his father and other people in his hometown of Ambo with their construction projects. At the time he was nicknamed ‘Oddjob’ which is also the name of a James Bond villain, because he would do any task for money. Now he uses his race earnings to benefit his family.
Jisa says his motivation to race comes from his children. And this will empower him when he lines up in Beirut.
“I have no business.” he reveals. “I focus on my family outside of the training. I enjoy the cinema, football matches and coffee with friends.”
He comes from a large family and while many of his brothers and sisters remain in Ambo, a town known worldwide for its natural spring water, some have followed him to Addis Ababa. His younger sister for instance, Desi Mekonnen, is a promising young runner who has acquired Bahraini citizenship.
In many ways the Beirut Marathon can be an indicator of where Jisa’s career is headed. A successful run can lead to invitations to the World Marathon Majors and perhaps a chance to represent Ethiopia at a global championship. As he winds down his training these last two weeks in order to be as sharp as possible he keeps his cards close to his chest as to what he expects.
“I do not know much about the Beirut Marathon other than Coach Haji's athletes have had success there in the past,” he says, “But I am very ready.”
Paul Gains (organisers) for the IAAF