Will Ethiopia Again Dominate the Scotiabank Ottawa Marathon?

April 25, 2017 | By Paul Gains 

Waving flags, ear piercing ululations and other celebratory expressions have greeted the Ethiopian winners of the Scotiabank Ottawa Marathon these past several years as their supporters have come out en masse.

For seven years, on the trot Ethiopian women have won this IAAF Gold Label race while the men have a four-year streak going. That dominance may very well continue as the 2017 edition of the IAAF gold race is set for Sunday, May 28. Clearly Ethiopians love Ottawa.

“There are so many things I like about Canada but simply the city of Ottawa is so beautiful with amazing people,” says Koren Jelela, the defending Ottawa champion. “What I most remember about Ottawa last year is that the weather was so heavy – it was windy and cloudy – and we Ethiopians finished 1-2-3 in the women’s race.

“But the support of Ethiopians in the crowd, I remember, made me so happy and proud that we all have got these results and made those other people happy. I was so sure all the hard work was worth it.”

Among those supporters was Mrs. Birtukan Ayano, the Ethiopian Ambassador to Canada, who attended a dinner with her compatriots at a local Ethiopian restaurant. She plans to host a dinner for the athletes this year at the Ethiopian embassy.

Jelela, who set a Canadian all comers record of 2:22:43 in Toronto six years ago, trains with large group of distance runners under coach Gemedu Hailemariam.

Among her training partners are some of the world’s most talented marathoners: Aselefech Mergia (2:19:31 personal best), Aberu kebede (2:20:30 PB), Tirfi Tsegaye (2:19:41 PB), Feyse Tadese (2:20:27 PB),Shure Demise (2:20:59 PB), Amane Beriso  (2:20:48 PB) and many more. Jelela says the Scotiabank Ottawa Marathon is well known amongst their training group.

“They have a great respect for Ottawa,” she reveals. “Also for Toronto. It was won two times by our team member, Shure Demise, so we all work hard to get the best result in Canada.”

At the moment Jelela is running roughly 180 kilometres each week at altitudes of between 2500m and 2800m above sea level with the intention of defending her Ottawa title. Victory isn’t a foregone conclusion, however.

A year ago she easily handled the competition, which included 2015 winner Aberu Mekuria, stretching her winning margin to nearly three minutes by the finish. Now Mekuria is also returning with vengeance in mind.

The men’s race will feature several Ethiopian stars including Seboka Tola Dibaba marking his second visit to Canada in seven months. He finished a strong second at the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon last October. With a personal best of 2:06:17 from the 2012 Dubai Marathon he will be one to watch. He is joined by countryman Sisay Jisa (2:06:27 personal best).

Jisa has the nickname ‘Sherube’ for his unique hairstyle – he races with his hair in cornrows. Earlier this year he finished 4th in Dubai with a time of 2:08:09 and Ottawa will mark his first race in Canada.

Also making the journey from Ethiopia this year is Adugna Takele. He finished second in the 2013 Ottawa 10k and then moved up to the marathon. With a personal best of 2:08:31 he returns to Ottawa to compete in the 42km event.

Not only do Ethiopian runners have a grip on the podium but both the course record holders are from the East African nation.

In 2014, Yemane Tsegay emerged victorious in the men’s race while Tigist Tufa took the women’s. Tsegay also set a still standing Canadian all comers’ record of 2:06:54 that day and earned a bonus of a Hyundai Santa Fe SUV.  A year later he represented Ethiopia at the IAAF World Championships in Beijing earning the silver medal. He isn’t the only Ethiopian to excel beyond the Ottawa Marathon.

Tufa set the course record of 2:24:31 but didn’t understand there was the added incentive of a Hyundai vehicle for an all comers’ record. Later that year she ran a person best time of 2:21:52 to win the Shanghai Marathon in China. But it was her surprise victory at the 2015 London Marathon that really caught the world’s attention. She traces her rise to the elite level from her Ottawa victory.

“I had mixed feelings thinking of the 2014 Ottawa race,” she recalled fondly from her home in Addis Ababa where she is training for the 2017 London Marathon. “I was so happy being the champion. It was my first IAAF Gold label marathon win and I will always remember as it is my first happiness.

“The second thing is that if I had the known there was a vehicle prize I would have run harder and improved my time. I was in top condition and had the power to run better than 2:24.”

Tufa says winning Ottawa helped her get a Nike shoe contract and made it easier for her to get into other IAAF Gold Label races including London. Moreover, she was selected to the 2016 Ethiopian team for the 2016 Rio Olympics.

The field assembled this year by race director Manny Rodriguez is worthy of the IAAF Gold Label and one thing is certain:  the Ethiopians will come expecting to dominate. As Koren Jelela says there is national pride.

“I hope to run 2:23 as it is going to be my best time there and, yes, I expect we will run 1-2-3 and we will celebrate,” she reveals. “The victory is very important to me (if I win) I will be a three times winner in Canada, which has a big name.”