This Marriage Goes the Distance

Tigrai Online
Oct. 01 2010

Gebre Gebremariam and his wife Werknesh KidaneGebre Gebremariam sat in the lobby of a Philadelphia hotel just hours after his second-place finish in the city's half-marathon last month. He was disappointed.

"I wanted to win," said the 26-year-old Ethiopian runner with a tired smile.

Next to him sat the third-place finisher on the women's side, Werknesh Kidane, who was far happier with her time of 1:08:30, which put her just ahead of American star Shalane Flanagan. Why was she so pleased?

"Now she has two babies, very, very beautiful babies," Mr. Gebremariam translated for his fellow Ethiopian, explaining that the 28-year-old Ms. Kidane had just returned to competitive running from a multiyear break after becoming a mother. She had led for large chunks of the race and so, he said, "she's very happy."

What he didn't need to add—but his broad smile suggested—was that the babies were also his.

Like many of the world's elite runners, Mr. Gebremariam and Ms. Kidane will be traveling to New York in November to compete in the ING New York City Marathon, where both will be making their debut at that distance. But the two Ethiopians share an unusual connection among the race's top contenders: They are also married.

After their dual strong showings in Philadelphia, Ms. Kidane, clad in a white tracksuit and delicate gold earrings, her long dark hair pulled back into a ponytail, and Mr. Gebremariam, sporting cropped, curly hair, a dusting of mustache and dark straight brows, talked about their courtship and the challenges of running a household with two elite athletes and two young children.

They grew up about 70 miles apart in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. When she was 13 years old, Ms. Kidane's uncle spotted her chasing after livestock on her family's farm and convinced her mother—over strenuous objections—to allow him to move her to the capital city of Addis Ababa, where he promised to fund her education.

Her uncle was in the military, Ms. Kidane recalled, and lived on a nearby base while she stayed with his wife. But he would arrive at their house every morning between 5:30 and 6:30 to rouse Ms. Kidane for daily runs. Afraid to disobey him, she agreed.

"I don't know about running at that time," said the slight Ms. Kidane, as her husband translated. "I run to get the sheep, to get the goat, to follow with them very fast, but I don't know the meaning of running."

"He force her, 'You have to run, you have to run,' " added Mr. Gebremariam.

But once she started winning—and traveling to competitions outside Africa—Ms. Kidane began to realize why her uncle had pushed her so hard.

"She's very happy and she's very satisfied," Mr. Gebremariam said. "So she turn to her uncle and said, 'Oh, my uncle, he do very well.' "

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