Ethiopian Duo Win Houston Marathon

Left: Kelkile Gezahegn celebrates his win in the 48th running of the Houston Marathon. Right: Askale Merachi breaks the tape to win the women's race. (Photo: Houston Chronicle)

Houston Chronicle

If it’s a Sunday morning in January and Houston’s streets are swarming with runners, it’s a safe bet Ethiopians will be leading the pack, then leaving town with brand-new cowboy hats. They went 2-for-2 this year for the 10th time in the last dozen years.

Kelkile Gezahegn reclaimed the men’s crown in the Chevron Houston Marathon on behalf of his East African homeland — which took a one-year hiatus from winning — with his 2:08:36, breaking away from his only challenger, countryman Bonsa Dida. Askale Merachi extended what’s now a 14-year run of Ethiopian dominance among the women with a 2:03:39, only 15 seconds shy of the course record.

The 23-year-old Gezahegn is the eighth different male champion from the East African nation since 2009, while Merachi, a decade older at 33, is the 10th different Ethiopian female to prevail since 2007.

Both made their respective Houston debuts memorable, winning $45,000 and those prized Stetsons. Note that Merachi admitted, speaking through a translator, that with all due respect to our proud Texas heritage, “the 45K was the most important goal.”

She did add that the hat was “very lovely.”

Such is the depth of talent in Ethiopia, however, that neither Gezahegn nor Merachi is assured of making their Olympic team for the Tokyo Games this summer. Gezahegn, who ran a personal-best 2:05:56 in Rotterdam, Netherlands, in 2018, said “it’s up to my manager” as to whether he’s even in the conversation. Yet despite his youth, he has eight career marathon victories, winning at least once in each of the past three seasons with triumphs in Frankfurt, Germany, and Ljubljana, Slovenia, in 2018 and 2019, respectively.

Gezahegn followed Kenya’s Albert Korir atop the podium (another Kenyan, Dominic Ondoro, won in 2017) but didn’t come close to threatening Tariku Jufar’s course record 2:06:51, set in 2012.

Although also largely unknown to local crowds lining the streets from downtown to the Galleria area, Merachi showed herself to be the favorite early and, despite fading a little late as a cold, blustery wind picked up — everyone’s pace slowed markedly because of it — was able to easily block countrywoman Biryukayit Degefa’s bid to become the first runner, male or female, to collect a fourth championship.

However, by placing second with a 2:24:47 that was faster than two of her winning times, Degefa secured a podium finish for an unprecedented sixth consecutive year — after a fourth-place showing in 2014. She’s one of three Ethiopian women to win at least twice. It was Dire Tune who began Ethiopia’s reign with a back-to-back in 2007 and 2008.

“I finished like I started,” Merachi said. “My goal is always a single one: just winning.”

She admitted she was aware of what Degefa was hoping to accomplish — two Kenyan men, David Cheruiyot (2005-06, 2008) and Stephen Ndungu (1998-2000), are the only other three-time champions in Houston since the inaugural marathon in 1972 — but said, “I just did my part.”

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