It became the question of the day at the New York City Marathon, when the guy few had heard of, the one wearing an off-the-rack singlet rather than one from a fancy sponsor, claimed third place in the world’s biggest marathon.
Then he walked into the postrace news conference wearing the most basic pair of sweatpants and a pullover.
“I don’t have a sponsor,” he said. “I don’t have an agent. I just compete individually.”
These were the words of Girma Bekele Gebre, 26, an Ethiopian sub-elite runner who runs with the West Side Runners club when he is in New York. He had won races that New York Road Runners put on, but nothing that would have suggested he might run in 2 hours 8 minutes 38 seconds on Sunday, just 25 seconds off the pace of Geoffrey Kamworor’s winning time.
What separates marathoning from virtually every other sport is that all of the competitors — crazy fast runners, really fast runners and those who are not very fast at all — run the same 26.2-mile course. And every once in a while someone who doesn’t have his name on his bib, someone who has to pay the entry fee rather than earn an appearance fee, lands on the podium.
It happened at the 2018 Boston Marathon when Sarah Sellers, a nurse anesthetist, running in her second marathon, took second place. To the postrace news conference, she wore the long-sleeve T-shirt that all Boston Marathon participants receive when they pick up their bibs before the race.
Sellers, however, started that race with the elite women. Gebre began Sunday’s race in a separate start, on the other side of the median on the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge, because he was not a part of the professional field. He joined the lead pack in Brooklyn, when the runners from the separate starts come together on Fourth Avenue. For his efforts, Gebre collected $40,000. He wore Bib No. 443. He vomited profusely shortly after crossing the finish line.
Gebre moved home to Ethiopia in the spring after one of his brothers died while working on the family farm. Previously he would spend two or three months at a time in New York training with West Side Runners, a club with hundreds of very good, working class, mostly immigrant runners that began out of the West Side Y.M.C.A. 42 years ago. Gebre raced mostly up and down the East Coast.
“I’m surprised that the time was as good as it was,” said Bill Staab, 80, who has run West Side Runners for four decades. Staab often housed African runners in his small Manhattan apartment for weeks and months at a time. He said that changed last month, when his co-op board told him he could no longer have all these visitors. So Gebre stayed with a friend in the Bronx when he arrived last week, then spent the night before the marathon in the hotel room of a professional Ethiopian runner in Manhattan — a room paid for by race organizers.
“Girma is one of the fastest local runners,” said Staab, who credited Gebre’s past months in Ethiopia with his breakthrough performance. “They usually train better there than here because they train at altitude.”
Gebre ran 2:13:46 at the Pittsburgh Marathon in May.
Through an interpreter, Gebre said on Sunday night that he decided at the beginning of the race to try to run with the elite runners. They set a relatively slow pace (1:04:49) for the first half of the race, allowing Gebre to run with them.
Gebre said he did not know whether he could stay with the lead pack since he had never raced a marathon with some of the best athletes in the world. He had seen them, and he knew their times, and he knew his were not as fast. He began to tire at the 20-mile mark, and knew he had to dig deep and trust his training in Ethiopia.
For months there, he had run twice every day except on Sundays, when he ran once. He trained with a group of talented Ethiopian runners. They often trained on gravel or on paths through the woods, running for more than two hours at a time during some workouts that lasted 25 miles. He never runs more than 20 miles on asphalt in training.
On Sunday, with a little more than three miles left and the lead pack thinning, he knew he was going to end up in the top three.
“He got outkicked by two of the fastest runners in the world,” said Sammy Gotts, a close friend of Gebre’s who works closely with West Side Runners. “There’s no shame in that.”
Indeed, Kamworor holds the world record in the half-marathon.
Not only did Gebre start the race on a separate line from the elite professionals, the elite runners get to arrange for personally designed nourishment in bottles they grab off special tables roughly every three miles. Runners like Gebre have to make do with the water and Gatorade that race organizers provide to the other 50,000-plus runners who participate.
Staab said he had asked New York Road Runners to classify Gebre with the elite runners, but was turned down. A spokesman for the organization, Chris Weiller, said that New York usually has a deep field of sub-elite runners and that it is difficult to determine which one might break through on a given day.
Staab said Gebre is a very humble and quiet runner from a family of farmers. “He’s probably run 100 races in the New York area, but those are usually races that professionals are not invited to,” Staab said. “All the Ethiopian runners here are very excited for him.”
Gebre’s third-place showing and $40,000 prize are potentially life-changing in a poor country, like Ethiopia, that reveres distance runners. Staab said that Gebre had probably never won more than $6,000 to $8,000 at races and that he usually runs in competitions in which the prize money is $500 to $1,000.
Gebre said he would use the money to help his family and himself. He plans to stay in New York for two weeks. The celebrations began Sunday night as he and several Ethiopian friends gathered at the Queen of Sheba restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen. It’s Ethiopian.
Lindsay Crouse contributed reporting.