Tsegaye Mekonnen’s marathon debut four years ago stunned running aficionados across the world as the Ethiopian youngster won the Dubai Marathon in 2:04:32, the fastest time in history by an U20 athlete.
Still only 23 years old, Mekonnen has confirmed he will race the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon on 21 October, thereby earning the distinction of being the fastest entrant to ever run this IAAF Gold Label event.
“It’s been going well and I feel like I am in a good shape right now,” said Mekonnen. “Toronto is a big race and I’ve been preparing for it. I have spent three months in my build-up and so I hope to run a good race.
“I’ve been running at a high altitude – between 2,500-3,000m – so that I could adapt myself to tough conditions and I’ve been running 180-200km per week.”
Since his breakthrough performance four years ago, Mekonnen has shown flashes of brilliance such as his third-place finish at the 2016 Dubai Marathon in 2:04:46 and a 2:07:26 victory at the 2017 Hamburg Marathon.
In a country where children grow up celebrating the success of Ethiopian legends such as Derartu Tulu, Haile Gebrselassie, Tirunesh Dibaba and Kenenisa Bekele, he was exposed to running very early and earned a place on Ethiopia’s team for the IAAF World Junior Championships Barcelona 2012. He finished fifth in the 5000m final there, but, unlike others who would develop their track potential, Mekonnen quickly switched to road racing.
“To my knowledge there were not many track races in that time and I couldn't find the right people to bring me to those races,” he remembers. “So, I made the decision to compete in the road races. Demadonna Management encouraged me to become a marathon runner and it was the right decision for me, looking back now.
Mekonnen is fully aware he will face strong competition in Toronto, including Philemon Rono, the two-time defending champion, New Zealand’s Jake Robertson and 2012 Olympic champion Stephen Kiprotich of Uganda, among others. He edged Kiprotich in Hamburg by a mere five seconds.
“I would say that I am in between the 2:05-2:06 range,” says Mekonnen, who is coached by Gemedu Dedefo. “But I hope to run even better in Toronto. I intend on winning Toronto and nothing less.”
The course record of 2:06:52 was set by Rono last year. It is also the fastest time ever run on Canadian soil.
With such a strong field and with the right conditions, that record could easily fall. Kiprotich has said he wants a faster personal best (2:06:33) to go with his Olympic and World Championship gold medals and Rono wants a third consecutive victory. Mekonnen, with his splendid curriculum vitae, stands between them and glory. The race is certainly shaping up to be a classic.
Mimi Belete’s marathon debut earlier this year may not have made quite as big an impact as Mekonnen’s did in 2014, but the Bahraini runner shares similar ambitions as she heads to Toronto.
The former 1500m specialist clocked 2:26:06 to finish third at the Hamburg Marathon back in April. No one was more surprised than her coach Getaneh Tessema, as Belete had battled a flare-up of a nagging hamstring injury for much of the race.
“For a long time I was training for the short distances and now I want to get a good time in the marathon,” she explains. “I was happy with my performance in Hamburg. I could have run faster but I had a hamstring problem. I want to get my best time in Toronto.”
Though Belete she was born in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, she and her younger sister Almensh left their homeland and sought political asylum in Belgium while still in their teens. They remember watching Haile Gebrselassie strike Olympic gold at the Sydney Olympics on Ethiopian television, but they didn’t run during their time in Ethiopia.
Both took up running in their new country and Mimi chose to focus on the 1500m early on, winning the Belgian U20 title in 2007.
She later took up Bahraini citizenship and represented the country at the 2009 IAAF World Championships in Berlin, reaching the 1500m semifinals. Two years later, she finished seventh in the 1500m final.
Belete, who later returned to Addis to train with her husband Birhanu Girma, boasts PBs of 4:00.08 for 1500m, 8:30.00 for 3000m and 14:54.71 for 5000m.
In Toronto she will face defending champion Marta Megra, 2:20:48 performer Amane Beriso, two-time Commonwealth Games medallist Jess Trengove of Australia, and Canada’s Krista DuChene.
While Beriso has targeted the course record (2:22:43) jointly held by Karen Jelela and Sharon Cherop, Belete is more interested in substantially reducing her personal best from Hamburg. But that may well indeed put her into course-record territory.
Paul Gains (organisers) for the IAAF