The last time a New Yorker won the New York City Marathon, Gerald Ford had just replaced Richard Nixon in the White House, and Olivia Newton-John’s “I Honestly Love You” was the country’s number-one song.
A world away from the massive international celebration that it is today, the New York City Marathon was still a quirky fringe event on September 29, 1974, when Norbert Sander and Kathrine Switzer became the first, last, and only New York City residents to win the race. The race was held entirely in Central Park; the five-borough spectacle we’re familiar with today was still two years away.
Since that day, a few New Yorkers have managed to crack the top 10 in their hometown race, but Bronx resident Buzunesh Deba, 27, stands poised as the best chance yet for NYC residents see “one of their own” break the 39-year dry spell.
Deba came awfully close in 2011, battling her friend and Ethiopian countrywoman Firehiwot Dado over 26-plus miles, before Dado pulled away in the final meters to win by four seconds. “Now I know I am a New Yorker,” Deba said, beaming, at the post-race press conference.
The road has had a few bumps for Deba since then—a foot injury in early 2012 and the cancellation of the race last fall have limited her to just one marathon in the last two years, a runner-up finish at the Chevron Houston Marathon in January. But for Deba, who has won eight of the 12 marathons she’s run in her career (her only losses have come in New York, three times, and the Houston race), the break might be just what she needed: Her performances quickly improved after she reduced her racing schedule three years ago to focus on a few key events each season.
Much of the credit for that sharpened focus goes to her husband, Worku Beyi, who put his own promising running career on hold in 2009 to serve as her coach and training partner. Following the plan that Beyi writes out for her by hand every week, Deba trains for the ING New York City Marathon like many other New Yorkers, taking the subway to track workouts and completing loop after loop of Central Park on the weekends. Sometimes, they drive the Honda Insight she earned for her win at the 2011 Los Angeles Marathon up to Rockefeller State Park just north of the city, so she can train on the miles of soft trails there.
The pair has no plans to leave New York City. New York is home, and there they’ve found a community within the large group of Ethiopian athletes who have moved to the area—at least in part because of Deba’s success—and at an Ethiopian Orthodox Church just a short train ride away in Harlem. Deba has a particular fondness for visiting the Bronx Zoo, and the couple likes trying new restaurants, especially for Italian food. Like most New Yorkers, they admit to having trouble finding places in their apartment to store all their stuff; unlike most New Yorkers, their “stuff” is boxes of trophies and awards and keepsakes from races around the country.
A few years ago, Beyi thought living at altitude might give Deba a competitive edge, so the pair moved to the training hotspot of Albuquerque, New Mexico…for a few weeks.
“Oh, she missed New York so much,” Beyi recalls, smiling and shaking his head. “She cried every day. She was not happy. So we moved back.”
Now, back in the city that she loves, Deba is happy. Wrapping up a recent long run at the marathon finish line in Central Park, she paused for a few minutes to watch other runners crisscross the roadway oblivious to the marathon star in their midst. Smiling, she gave her husband a little fist bump, and then they walked off to catch the subway for the ride home.
“Our races are to our sport what Wimbledon and the Australian, U.S., and French Opens are to tennis, and what the Masters, U.S., and British Opens and PGA Championship are to golf. Each race has the history, the tradition, the honor roll of legendary champions, and a special place in the eyes of all to make them stand apart from the other events.” Mary Wittenberg