Training in NYC parks, Deba seeks to win hometown marathon

Published Oct. 30, 2015 4:51 p.m. ET

NEW YORK (AP) One of the world's best marathoners trains among the weekend warriors and high school cross-country teams in New York City's parks.

Buzunesh Deba is used to stopping mid-stride when an amateur runner asks to take a selfie. She misses the bustle of the Bronx when she leaves, which is why she stayed at home to prepare for Sunday's New York City Marathon instead of going back to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to practice at altitude.

With a laugh, the soft-spoken Deba acknowledged, ''I'm surprised I do like it.''

The big city may not seem to fit her personality, and yet it's where she feels most comfortable. The 28-year-old came to New York from Ethiopia as a teenager more than a decade ago, and she's blossomed into an elite marathoner while training in local parks.

As Deba recently prepared to go for a jog in the Bronx's Van Cortlandt Park, a mile from her home in the Kingsbridge neighborhood, Kevin Montalvo came rushing over. Montalvo works for NYC Marathon organizer New York Road Runners but had never met Deba. He'd been hoping to, though, ever since hearing about her during the 2013 race, when she was the runner-up for the second straight time.

''It's like meeting a movie star or something,'' Montalvo, an experienced marathoner who helped found Queens Distance Runners, gushed after taking a photo with Deba.

Along with her two second-place finishes in New York, Deba was the runner-up in the 2014 Boston Marathon and third in Boston in April. What's missing is a major marathon title.


Deba set a personal best of 2 hours, 19 minutes, 59 seconds in Boston in 2014, which beat the previous course record. The winner that day, Kenya's Rita Jeptoo, has since been suspended for doping. She remains recognized as the 2014 champ, but additional evidence could lead to Jeptoo being stripped of that title.

Deba doesn't want to talk about the chance she could be moved up to first in the record books. Sunday offers the next opportunity to cross a finish line first, though her confidence isn't as high coming into this race after she was sidelined for two months in late summer because of a knee injury.

No New Yorker has won the NYC Marathon since 1974, when Norbert Sander and Kathrine Switzer swept the titles. The race had only 527 starters that day and stayed within the confines of Central Park.

There were 50,896 starters last year, when Deba came in ninth. She trained in Albuquerque for that race but decided this time she would be happier to stay in New York. Deba's husband, Worku Beyi, serves as her coach, and they both believe that practicing at altitude doesn't seem to make her any faster.

''If you're training hard anyway, you win,'' she explained.

They'll go back to New Mexico this winter to escape the cold and snow. The running trails in Albuquerque also mimic the Boston course well, Beyi said.

For the summer, though, Deba doesn't like the heat of the Southwest. And there's another hazard: snakes.

''I said, `I'm not coming anymore,''' she recalled, eyes wide at the memory of the slithering reptiles. ''Summertime, oh my God, everywhere.''

Tigist Tufa, the reigning London Marathon champ, stayed with Deba and trained with her in the Bronx before the 2013 NYC Marathon. Tufa is back in Ethiopia now, but she said Friday the training conditions are similar in both locations.

What Deba gets in New York are the shows of support every day while she trains, when others call out her name as she runs by. Winning the NYC Marathon would be bigger than an Olympic gold medal, she said.

''It's a beautiful city,'' Deba said, ''especially the people.''