Monday, May 7, 2012

Ethiopian runner Gezahgn Eshetu ignores cold to scorch field

Gezahgn Eshetu finishes 25 seconds ahead of last year's 'winterized' winner Bernard Onsare

First-place finisher Gezahgn Eshetu (left) and runner-up Bernard Onsare congratulate each other Sunday following the BMO Vancouver Marathon.

Having lived in Calgary for five years, Kenyan native Bernard Onsare has adjusted to temperatures cold enough to flash freeze a lithe, no-body-fat African runner.

So, he had to chuckle a little when Ethiopian Gezahgn Eshetu, making his first visit to Canada, showed up for the start of Sunday morning's BMO Vancouver Marathon with gloves on, even if it was a crisp, but pleasant 9 C under sunny skies. The last laugh, however, belonged to Eshetu, as the 28-year-old pulled away from Onsare, a two-time Vancouver winner, in the final kilometre to capture the first marathon of his career. The rakish six-footer crossed the line in two hours, 21 minutes, 51 seconds - 25 seconds ahead of Onsare.

"He never got this experience of the coldness," said Onsare, standing beside a beaming Eshetu after they had donned track suits and scarfed down a couple of post-race bananas.

"For me, I'm here and I'm part winter. But it was very cold for him. He had his gloves on. It wasn't easy for him because of the cold, but the weather for us was perfect."

Yes, ideal for a wee Bonnie lass named Ellie Greenwood. The native of Scotland, who has lived in B.C. and Alberta for most of the last 10 years, won the women's race in a personal best 2: 42: 16, good enough for 12th overall. Mary Akor, a Nigerian native and longtime California resident, was second in 2: 46: 01.

Kenya and Ethiopia are among the most friendly of African nations and Onsare easily agreed to speak for Eshetu, whose English is limited.

Amidst the din at the finish area, how-ever, we got little more than "he's happy, really excited for the win. He has more expectations in the future."

Despite a newly designed, supposedly faster course - a 42-kilometre romp past Pacific Spirit Park, Spanish Banks, Kitsilano and onto the Stanley Park Seawall - Eshetu's time was two minutes slower than Onsare's 2011 winning time and the third-slowest since 1999.

Off the start at Queen Elizabeth Park, Eshetu and Onsare quickly broke away in a four-runner pack with Kenyans Gilbert Kiptoo and Philip Samoei, who was supposed to act as a pacesetter with an eye to targeting the Vancouver record of 2: 13.14.

But Samoei peeled off earlier than expected at 15 kilometres and with Kip-too falling back eight kilometres later on the Burrard Bridge with an apparent calf problem, it was clear that even going under 2: 20 would be difficult.

Eshetu, who earned $3,000 for the win, said it was "very slow."

"It was our first time to have experience running together, so we didn't know each other," said Onsare. "Nobody wanted to make a move at all. I guess next year, if he comes back, he knows the course and ... maybe we can be faster than we did this year."

Onsare, who also won Vancouver in 2009 and who is working to secure Canadian citizenship, seems certain to be back, noting he has many friends in Vancouver and "I love the city ... the spectators, people giving me a lot of motivation."

He moved to Calgary in 2007, leaving behind a wife and infant daughter. He graduated in December from the plumbing apprentice program at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology. For the moment, however, he is continuing to work his custodial job at Canada Olympic Park, where his employer is "very encouraging" and allows him time to train. Onsare, who will bring his wife and daughter to Canada once he gets his citizenship, laughingly said he had promised them he would win Vancouver again.

Ryan Day of Victoria was third in 2: 29: 22, earning $750, plus an $800 bonus as top Canadian. Greenwood, 33, was coming off a 2: 43: 05 clocking in the London Marathon just two weeks ago. Three weeks before that, she ran a 80-kilometre race in California.

"I'm feeling pretty good, I'm actually more of an ultra runner, which means this is a reasonably short race for me," said Greenwood, who moved to North Vancouver from Banff a week ago.

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