Usually she would have prepared for this Boston Marathon by running the hills in Van Cortlandt Park in her Bronx backyard. But after 11 years away from Ethiopia, Buzunesh Deba decided last December that it was time for an extended homecoming to see her mother and brothers, get in a few months of altitude training in Addis Ababa, and see how different things were. “I was very excited and happy and very emotional,” she says. “Everything has changed. It was new for me.”
The 29-year-old Deba was a teenager when she came to the States to have an ankle repaired and ended up doing some babysitting for a New Jersey restaurant owner and sticking around. Now she’s a New York transplant who made herself into a world-class marathoner and who’s back for a fourth shot at a race that she didn’t win — and then won 32 months later.
Three years ago Deba came second to Kenyan defending champion Rita Jeptoo, who ran away from her in the final 2 miles and shattered Margaret Okayo’s course record. When it was later discovered that Jeptoo that year had been using erythropoietin, the banned blood-booster, she was suspended for four years and her Boston and Chicago crowns from 2014 were revoked.
Deba, who’d never won a major marathon, was given the Boston title last December and awarded the course record (2 hours, 19 minutes, 59 seconds). But the Boston Athletic Association couldn’t roll back the clock and have her break the tape in Copley Square. “Of course this bothered me because she [Jeptoo] took my chance, my happiness, everything,” she says.
The BAA says that it will do what it can to make sure that Deba is properly honored. “We have the champion’s medal and course-record medal for her,” says chief executive officer Tom Grilk. “If a time can be found that fits her schedule to make a presentation in an appropriate way we’ll do it. We want to be mindful of what she’s here to do and make sure it fits for her. The accoutrements are on site but we don’t want to interrupt her other work.”
What’s unclear is if and how Deba will collect the extra $100,000 that she’s entitled to for the difference between second and first place ($75,000) and the course-record bonus ($25,000).
“Efforts are underway to reclaim the money [from Jeptoo],” says BAA spokesman T.K. Skenderian. If Jeptoo doesn’t repay her winnings, the international federation (IAAF) says it will not let her compete after her suspension ends in October of next year.
When breathless fraudster Rosie Ruiz staggered across the finish line in 1980, robbing Jacqueline Gareau of her triumph, the BAA staged a ceremonial finish for the real victor in front of the Pru three weeks later. But Gareau, who finished a distant second in two subsequent races, never won here again.
Deba, who’ll be among the top contenders in Monday’s field which includes defending champion and countrywoman Atsede Baysa, former victor Caroline Rotich, and two-time world titlist Edna Kiplagat, still has the desire and the drive to actually win here on the day. “I love running,” she says. “Running is my life. I’m not going to stop.”
Deba, who was a sickly child, began lacing up at 13 after her father suggested that some vigorous exercise in open air might be a natural cure. Three years later she was representing Ethiopia at the world cross-country championships. But it wasn’t until 2009 that she blossomed as a road runner and began treating marathons as though they were routine 10K outings.
Within three months that year, Deba won the Quad Cities, finished seventh in New York, and won the California International in Sacramento. By the middle of 2011 she’d won another half dozen from Jacksonville to Duluth to San Diego, where she not only set a course record but bettered husband Worku Beyi’s personal best. “I will try harder to get the record back,” joked Beyi, who doubles as Deba’s coach. “I will not sleep anymore.”
The difference was that Beyi, who wasn’t a committed 26-miler, was accustomed to stopping midway along. “He doesn’t know how to train for marathon,” his wife says. It was the relentless training that ultimately convinced Deba to limit herself to two marathons a year like the rest of the elites. “The training is very hard,” she says. “The race is easy for me.”
All of Deba’s major races have been here and in New York, where she badly wants to win after seven attempts, including a second-place finish in 2013 (when Priscah Jeptoo ran her to ground in Central Park) and DNFs the last two years. “New York is my goal,” says Deba, who lives in a fifth-floor walkup apartment on West 195th Street.
But Boston, where she was third in 2015 and seventh last year, is where she has unfinished business. This may not be her hometown layout but Deba is comfortable enough with its hilly quirkiness that it might as well be. “I know the course very well and the times of the runners,” Deba says. “I don’t know who starts but I know myself.”
What Deba knows is that no woman has run this race faster than she did in 2014 and that now she gets another chance to win it with nobody in front of her. “I’m excited and going to do my best to be a champion again because she [Jeptoo] took my chance,” she says. “The happiness is when you cross the finish line.”