Despite Controversy, Gebre Is 2010 Honolulu Marathon Champion

By David Monti
(c) 2010 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved

December 12, 2010

HONOLULU (12-Dec) -- When Belainesh Gebre, an Ethiopian athlete based in Flagstaff, Ariz., was unable to gain invited status for the 38th Honolulu Marathon here this morning, she and her boyfriend, Ezkyas Sisay, decided to sign-up for the race on their own.  Race organizers were tipped off that she planned to compete by another competitor, and Honolulu Marathon Association president Dr. Jim Barahal allowed her and Sisay into the invited athletes staging area in the predawn darkness this morning.

"Because, you know, she tried to enter (as an) elite athlete, they didn't accept her," Sisay explained to reporters after the race.

Wearing bib number 9670, Gebre tucked in behind Sisay right from the gun, hitting the first kilometer in 3:25, and the first mile in 5:33, several seconds faster than course record pace.  With the exception of designated pacemaker Kaori Yoshida of Japan, who ran close behind the Ethiopian couple through 15 km, no other women were in sight.

Because Gebre, a 1:09:43 half-marathon runner who has won her last five road races, was not part of the invited field, she did not have her own energy drinks at the eight official aid stations like the other top women.  To compensate for that, she drank PowerBar energy drink from bottles which ringed Sisay's waist on a belt.

That's where all of the trouble started.

USA Track & Field rules 144 and 241 address unfair assistance to athletes, and Sisay's pacing Gebre, supplying her with drinks several times from his belt, bringing her sponges and drinks from the aid stations, and providing information to her about her pace and the whereabouts of her rivals was over the line as far as three-time champion Svetlana Zakharova of Russia was concerned.  After closing the gap on the slowing Gebre late in the race to about 40 seconds, Zakharova was unable to catch the Ethiopian who ran the last kilometer of the race alone after Sisay ducked off of the course.  The 40 year-old Russian, who has won both the Boston and Chicago Marathons, filed a protest after Gebre clocked 2:32:13 to win in her marathon debut.  Zakharova finished 48 seconds back.

Minutes later in a rambling interview, Sisay said he didn't understand what all the fuss was about.

"We need to drink PowerBar," he said referring to the energy drinks he carried.  "Then, we shared our drink."

He then insisted that he was not in the race to pace Gebre, but was trying to compete in the men's division, instead.

"I came here, I wanted to finish top-3," he said.  "This is my liquid.  She asked me then, I gave her."

After investigating the matter with a local USA Track & Field official, Barahal told reporters that he was unhappy about what Sisay had done, but that his offense didn't rise to the level where Gebre should be disqualified.

"After careful review of photographic evidence, eyewitness accounts, and some discussions with the runner and her running companion and coach, we have made the decision to affirm the results and declare (her) the winner of the race.  The results stand as determined on the course."

Barahal reasoned that since Gebre did not have access to the special fluid service provided to the invited athletes, her taking the drinks from Sisay essentially leveled the playing field.

"Because she entered on her own and was not an elite athlete, she was not able to access our elite aid stations, which there are eight on the course," Barahal, a cardiologist, said.  "Since she wasn't an elite athlete, she didn't have that.  By eyewitness accounts, we have reliable reports that she received assistance six times.  Even if that's true, that's still less than the eight (stations) the other athletes had."

Barahal said that he spoke to the Ethiopian couple sternly and expressed his displeasure, and that if she decided to return next year to defend her title such conduct would not be tolerated.

"We don't think there was any question that the coach acted inappropriately," Barahal intoned.  "Whether that reached the standard for disqualification is something reasonable people could probably disagree on."  He added: "Let's face it, at the end of the day she did run 26.2 miles."

Gebre earned $40,000 in prize money, compared to $16,000 for Zakharova.  Third place went to Japan's Yoshida, who decided to finish, in 2:39:02.

Men's Race: Last Year's Runner-Up Nicholas Chelimo Pockets $40,000
In the men's race, there was no such controversy.  Despite having Patrick Makau, the fastest marathoner of 2010 in the lead pack as a casual pacer, the tempo in the men's race was slow.  Makau didn't push the pace, and retired near the 11 mile mark (18 km).  A pack of five Kenyan contenders --Gilbert Kirwa, Nicholas Chelimo, Jimmy Muindi, Richard Limo and Solomon Bushendich-- then waltzed through the halfway mark in 1:07:40.  Chelimo, who was second her last year, didn't mind the slow pace.

"You know, I was not worried because, you know, the weather," Chelimo said after the race.  "The weather was a little bit humid from last year."

Indeed the 79% humidity was clearly a factor in the sluggish tempo, but so was a lack of leadership in the lead pack.  Without a designated pacemaker, the athletes were all looking at each other like gamblers at a poker table.

"I was watching all of the guys, because everybody was very strong," Chelimo commented.  "Today, I think everybody was very strong."

Muindi, a 6-time winner here, was the first to fall off of the pace in the second half.  The pack stretched and contracted several times, but after the 21 mile mark (34 km) Limo, a world 5000m champion, surged dropping Kirwa.  Chelimo stayed with Limo, and Bushendish fell back a few steps.  Then Chelimo saw his chance to win the race.

"About 35-K," he replied when he asked when he knew he would win the race.  "Because I surged.  I surged again and I got about 50 meters and I say, I think nobody will follow me again."

As the sun rose over the Pacific behind Chelimo, his lead went unchallenged over the final climb up Diamond Head Avenue, then down to the finish in Kapiolani Park.  His winning time was modest --2:15:18-- but like Gebre his payday was big: $40,000.

"I feel very happy, very happy, wonderful," said Chelimo who has a 2:07:38 personal best.  "This is the best marathon of my life, this one.  I am very happy."

Limo finished a distant second, exactly two minutes back, and Busendich finished third in 2:19:54.  The top American was 45 year-old Mbarak Hussein of Albuquerque, N.M., who finished sixth in 2:22:37; 29 year-old Nick Stanko of Haslett, Mich., was seventh in 2:27:25.

This morning's race had 22,806 entrants, and runners will be coming in to the finish line until dark.  Unlike most big marathons, Honolulu does not enforce a time limit for finishing.

*Full Results here

Men's Top Results

Name Bib City Country Official
Time
1 Chelimo, Nicholas 4 NGONG HILLS KEN 2:15:18
2 Limo, Richard 3 ELDORET KEN 2:17:18
3 Bushendich, Solomon 5 ELDORET KEN 2:19:54
4 Kirwa, Gibert 8 ITEN KEN 2:20:58
5 Muindi, Jimmy 1 KANGUNDO KEN 2:22:34

Women's Top Results

Name Bib City Country Official
Time
1 Gebre, Belainesh 9670 FLAGSTAFF USA 2:32:13
2 Zakharova, Svetlana F1 CHEBOKSARY RUS 2:33:00
3 Yoshida, Kaori F3 TOKYO JPN 2:39:02
4 Naser, Teyba F5 ETH 2:41:08
5 Hayakawa, Eri F2 TOKYO JPN 2:42:12

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