Buzunesh Deba's journey stretches from Ethiopia to the Bronx, and next stop is to win NYC Marathon
It's a few minutes after seven o'clock in the morning, and a little woman with big plans is deep inside the trails of Van Cortland Park in her home borough, churning out miles as if they were meters.
Later, she will work on her speed, running a 4:48/mile pace for five minutes, doing it eight times with three minutes recovery in between, and following it with 12 more reps at a 4:33 pace for two minutes.
Buzunesh Deba is about the size of a CC Sabathia leg, measuring 5-3 and 105 pounds, but underestimate her will at your own peril.
"She doesn't want to go slow, ever," says her coach/husband, Worku Beyi. "She always wants to go hard."
Buzunesh Deba is a 24-year-old former gymnast who grew up in the town of Asela in Ethiopia's Rift Valley, and now lives in a fifth-floor walkup on West 195th St. in the Bronx. The apartment has parquet floors and an alcove overstuffed with running shoes, and a few dozen trophies and medals, all of them the fruits of Deba's rapidly ascending marathoning career.
A month from now, in the ING New York City Marathon, Deba will endeavor to add to the collection - not only by scoring the greatest victory of her life, but by becoming the first New Yorker to win the five-borough race.
"I hope to make the New York Road Runners, my husband as well as myself proud," Deba says, speaking her native Anharic language to an interpreter, over a bowl of vegetable soup in her apartment.
Says Mary Wittenberg, CEO of the New York Road Runners, "It's remarkable to think that there could be a champion hiding in plain sight, training in our parks and streets right here in New York City."
Deba has run 11 marathons in all, winning nine of them, including San Diego this past June, when she crossed in a personal-record time of two hours, 23 minutes, 31 seconds - the fastest women's marathon time ever clocked in California, and the fastest time ever posted by a New Yorker.
The effort shattered the 2:24:52 mark Joan Benoit Samuelson set in winning the inaugural women's Olympic marathon in Los Angeles in 1984.
The only marathons Deba has not won, in fact, have been in New York; she finished seventh two years ago (2:35.54) and 10th last year (2:29.55), though in each case she had run another marathon 35 days before.
This year she is much fresher, much faster, Beyi says. Deba has broken her 10K personal-best three times this year, most recently this summer, when she finished in 32:35 in the Beach to Beacon race in Maine. Beyi believes Deba's preparations for New York - 130-mile training weeks are the norm - have her in prime fitness.
"I believe she can run even faster (than she has), if she dares," Beyi says.
Adds Whittenberg, "She is consistent and focused and fearless in her own quiet way, She sticks to her game plan and right now believes she can beat anybody."
Deba began running some 10 years ago, quite by accident. Her father, Deba Dejene, had followed the heroics of Ethiopia's Derartu Tulu in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, where Tulu captured the gold in the 10,000 meters - eight years after she became the first black African woman to win a gold, over the same distance in Barcelona.
"Why don't you try running?" Dejene asked his daughter. She entered a 1500-meter school race and finished third, then spent quite a while afterward in tears.
"I got very upset that I got beaten," Deba says. "It (still) makes me very upset when I lose. It gives me the determination to go out and try two or three times as hard."
Tulu, who won New York two years ago when Deba was making her debut here, became Deba's running role model and inspiration. Soon Deba was completely consumed with the sport. She entered her first regional race in Ethiopia at age 13, a one-day trip that required Deba to separate from her family for the first time. She cried again. Beyi, a talented runner himself, was also competing in the race, and when he saw a sweet-faced young girl in the throes of homesickness, he tried to comfort her.
"It's only for one day. They will be here when you get back," Beyi told her.
A romance ensued, and then a marriage. Six years ago, Deba came here to run in a race and stayed to get treatment on a chronic ankle injury. She felt completely at home in the city, all the more so when Deba, a devout Christian, found an Ethiopian church in Harlem.
Last winter, while training for the Los Angeles Marathon, Deba and Beyi relocated to Albuquerque so Deba could incorporate altitude training.
The weather was welcoming, but Deba desperately missed the city's teeming diversity, missed her church, everything.
Deba worked as a babysitter when she first arrived in New York, but has been a professional runner for three years now. She has one sponsor (Mizuno) and seems to be forging her way into the sport's elite, and would love to prove it anew next month, starting on the Verrazano Bridge. Deba will follow her customary routine. She will think of her father, who died of a sudden illness seven years ago, and thank him for all of his love and support, and then she will summon her faith during the race.
"I call out to God, and he gives me strength and power," Deba says.
Twenty-six and two tenths miles later, Buzunesh Deba hopes to cross the finish line in Central Park. Wouldn't it be something if a woman from West 195th were the one to break the tape?
Buzunesh Deba is finished with her soup. She leans forward on a chair and smiles.
"That is one of my goals - to be a big New Yorker," she says.