TORONTO. July 23. Conspicuous in his woolen toque and two layers of t-shirts Sahle Warga Betona crossed the finish line first in the 2012 Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon becoming the event’s only Ethiopian male winner.
The result was entirely unexpected as he beat a heavily favoured trio of world class Kenyan athletes with vastly superior credentials. With his victory Warga certainly endeared himself to the people of Toronto.
It’s no wonder, then, that the organisers are delighted that he intends to defend his title at this IAAF Silver Label race on October 21st. What’s more, the affable 29 year old also has his sights set on a new course record. The current record, which is also the fastest time ever run on Canadian soil, is held by Kenya’s Kenneth Mungara at 2:07:58.
“It was my first and my greatest victory in marathon,” he declares. “Also I was the first Ethiopian winner of the race. I was injured after I arrived in Toronto and I wasn’t confident up to 25km. But I won after those difficulties.”
The news of his victory and the $20,000 prize money was delivered to his wife by a friend who had been following the race via the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon’s live stream. He smiles when he recounts the tale.
Warga smiles a lot. His management often rely on his help when dealing with other Ethiopian runners in their group because his English is quite good. And, if he achieves his goals in Toronto this year, he will be especially pleased. Having run on the course once he believes he can run faster.
“I think so. I need to defend and to run under the course record,” he says. “Always it’s difficult to say I can do this or that in a marathon but I hope I can run under 2:08.”
Much has changed in this young man’s life since he won Toronto. For one thing his family has grown. Six months ago his wife, Wudnesh Berta, gave birth to the couple’s second child, a girl they named Yordanos Sahle. They also have a two year old son, Ezra Sahle.
Warga has also furthered his marathon running career. Earlier this spring he recorded a personal best at the Paris Marathon with a time of 2:08:19. That race, and the way he ran it, underscores his belief he can run much faster.
“It was very good race and I ran with the leaders up to 33 km and I continued on my own pace after the leader was pushing,” he says of the race that was won by Kenya’s Peter Some in 2:05:38. Had he gone out a little more conservatively he might well have run faster.
According to his personal coach, Gebeyehu Berihun, he is in much better shape than he was a year ago. Covering between 180 and 220 kilometres each week he has been training in a group of about thirty athletes which includes some formidable marathon runners: Deressa Chimsa (2:05:42), Shami Abdulahi (2:05:42), Seboka Dibaba (2:06:17) and Dino Sefir (2:04:50). All are managed by the Italian sports agent, Gianni DeMadonna and his colleague Chiara Davini.
The group meets at the many preferred training sites on the outskirts of Addis. Running in the city is near impossible due to the crowds, the pollution and heavy traffic. Warga’s favourite places are Sululta and Entoto where the altitude is between 9,000 and 10,000 feet above sea level, perfect for a marathon training buildup.
Warga has understandably raised his expectations because of the influence and success of his training partners as well as his two year association with coach Berihun whom he first met during a flight to Vienna in 2010. He made his debut at that year’s Vienna Marathon running 2:09:48. Asked what his ultimate goal is he doesn’t hesitate.
“To run under 2:05 and to win the Olympics,” is his response. Again, having the right conditions is necessary.
Growing up in the village of Kebul in the south of Ethiopia, Warga was introduced to distance running while in school. He remembers his first race as a high school student.
“Yes, I remember it very well. I ran 1500m when I was a grade 10 student and I won that race,” he recalls. “In high school after I saw my friends run I began running. There weren’t athletes from my village but I listened to many things about Haile (Gebrselassie).”
The legendary Gebrselassie, widely considered the greatest distance runner in history, moved from his the small village of Asela to Addis determined to become a great runner like his hero, double Olympic champion Miruts Yifter. His performances are legendary in Ethiopia with villagers across the country following him via radio and word of mouth. His exploits also left an impression upon Warga.
“In 2001, after I finished my high school,” he explains, “I decided to continue in athletics, so I moved to Addis to start my career.
“I now live in Addis Ababa, the place called Adisu Gebeya (New Market), and I spend most of my spare time with my family. I have a two year old son and a six month old daughter and I spend my spare time playing and taking care my children.”
Everyone hopes that conditions for the 2013 Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon are ideal for fast times. Warga will be ready to run. And, if his competitors are game we might well see a Canadian All Comers’ and course record. Either way, one can be sure Sahle Warga Betona will be smiling.