Tiki Gelana remembers watching the Olympics on television and being inspired by her Ethiopian countrywomen, years before she set an Olympic marathon record of 2:23:07.
"I was really moved by the 10,000-meter race in Sydney where Derartu Tulu and Gete Wami ran," she says. Like the two-time Olympic champion Tulu, Gelana hails from the vicinity of Bekoji in the Arsi area south of Addis Ababa, and it was in a hotel in the town that she joined others watching the 2000 Olympics. "I couldn't even tell Derartu and Gete apart, and when they showed one of them on the screen, I kept asking, 'OK, which one is she?'" adds Gelana. But before Tulu and Wami were done, with gold and silver medals in hand, Gelana knew running was what she wanted to do.
"Bekoji is a place where athletes come from and compete on a daily basis," says Gelana, who was born and spent her early years in a rural area some distance from the town but later attended school and ran in Bekoji. The now-famous town's list of running legends includes the two-time Olympic 10,000m champions Tirunesh Dibaba and Kenenisa Bekele. "Running is a lifestyle in Bekoji and I am part of that," says Gelana, who has also been personally encouraged by 2000 Olympic marathon winner and Arsi native Gezahegne Abera. "His wife is from my part of the country, so we are close," says Gelana. "He helps me, he encourages me."
Abera continued a tradition begun by the legendary 1960 and 1964 Olympic champion Abebe Bikila, but Ethiopia had won the women's marathon for the first time four years before Sydney, when Bekoji's Fatuma Roba took the title. "I'm very happy I've replicated her victory," says Gelana. "But I'm very disappointed that I've never met her in person."
These days, Gelana spends her days in close proximity to one of her other running idols, as Wami's husband, Getaneh Tessema, is her coach. "I’m very, very grateful to Getaneh," says Gelana, who ran a national record 2:18:58, the second-fastest time of the year and eighth-fastest ever, in winning the Rotterdam Marathon in April, after running 2:22:08 to win Amsterdam in October. “Getaneh is the one who prepared me for Amsterdam and Rotterdam.”
Coming into London, she was ready for much that she would encounter in the Olympic marathon, including the Kenyan opposition and the course itself, but what she wasn't prepared for was the spill she took at a water station.
"I went to collect water and I don't know who came into contact with me, but I fell," she says, lifting her right forearm after the race to display a bloodied elbow with the skin peeled off, and repeating the gesture at a press conference once it had been bandaged. "I fell very hard."
Gelana wasn't sure but estimated it might have been in the 16th mile while a large pack remained in the hunt and a downpour had worn the runners down and made the ground slippery. "After I fell, I knew that if I fell again, I might not make it back up again, so I was running very cautiously," she says.
So with her eyes on the ground and her forearms close to her chest, Gelana forged her way ahead, accompanied by her teammates at first, and later flanked at times by the Kenyan contenders, the two-time London marathon winner Mary Keitany, the world champion Edna Kiplagat and April's London runner-up Priscah Jeptoo, after the rain-soaked stages of the race were over.
“It’s not easy to run in the rain because, though you are in shape, you can get stitches or backache problems,” says Jeptoo, who took Olympic silver behind Gelana. “Mary [Keitany] has a lot of problems with backaches because of the rain and a lot of corners.”
Gelana was ready for those tight corners. “For this race, we did a lot of work preparing for the curves,” she says. “The federation had put us all in a hotel and on Sundays, which are the rest days, [Getaneh] would steal me away and we’d work on the curves. We’d go to a field and he’d put down obstacles – like the ones footballers work with – and make me run very fast around them.”
After Sunday’s leaders had been joined by Russian Tatyana Petrova Arkhipova, who was to eventually finish third, Kiplagat was the first of the Kenyan trio to fall off the pace. “I was monitoring them and following their pace,” says Gelana.
Yearly world leader Keitany was who Gelana watched out for most, and when she had been duly conquered and fallen back late in the race, Gelana was concerned about Jeptoo, who remained close behind her. “I thought, ‘Now, she’s coming for me,’ and I began my finishing sprint earlier than I planned, in an attempt to lose her,” says Gelana, who looked back to see Jeptoo, her face in a grimace. Gelana’s own face showed the strain she was under, but it was hidden from her pursuers as she pushed forward.
When all human challengers had been broken, it may have seemed that Mother Nature had turned on Gelana, as the skies that had cleared up after the earlier stages of the race opened up again. Gelana was unperturbed. “I love running in the rain,” she says. “I have been doing that since I was a small child.” It also helps that it’s the rainy season in Addis Ababa, and Gelana did her fair share of marathon training in those conditions before coming to London.
Gelana has track personal bests of 15:17 for 5000 meters and 31:27 for 10,000 meters from 2008, but once she ran the marathon she never looked back. Her 2009 debut in Dublin yielded a podium finish in 2:33:49, which she improved to 2:28:28 the next year in Los Angeles. After starting to train with Tessema in the latter half of 2011, she moved to world-class status with her 2:22 win in Amsterdam last fall.
“Getaneh is very dedicated to my training and I don’t want to waste one second of his time,” Gelana says. “I train mostly with men, and when I’m training, whether it’s 35K or 40K, at the end, when 2K or 3K remains, he tells me to run very hard, beyond my ability.”
Coming in to Rotterdam in April, Gelana, like her compatriots there, had one goal. “We were running in search of fast times, so I had really prepared for that,” she says. Ethiopia’s Olympic selection is based on season-best times, with London-hopeful marathoners having also been told to limit their marathons in the lead-up (a criterion which cut Rotterdam men’s champion Yemane Tsegay Adhane from the team despite his 2:04:48 win there, since he had already run Dubai in January).
Gelana’s pursuit of a swift finish in Rotterdam took her where no Ethiopian woman had gone before, surpassing the 2:19:31 previous national record of 2009 world bronze medalist Aselefech Mergia, who led the 2012 Olympic marathon team.
Gelana’s record and her form in the lead-up to London had tipped off her country’s athletics body to her promise in the race. “We have high expectations in the marathon,” said the national federation’s technical director, Dube Jilo, on Friday. “We expect gold,” he added. “In the men’s race and the women’s.”
It remains to be seen if the hopes placed on the men’s team, with Dubai champion and runner-up Ayele Abshero and Dino Sefir and Rotterdam runner-up Getu Feleke, will be realized, but Gelana has delivered in the women’s, following in the footsteps of her childhood idols who brought Olympic glory and, after a glittering track career or in their first brush with fame, ended up in the marathon.
“We Ethiopians think marathon is our national sport,” says Gelana. “Winning a gold in the marathon is very special for me. Marathon is my life.”