The Story Behind The MOST SHOCKING 2:15 Marathon In History

By Jonathan Gault
September 29, 2022

As Ethiopia's Tigist Assefa streaked to victory in the women's race at the 2022 Berlin Marathon on Sunday, virtually everyone in the running world was struggling to process what was happening. Assefa, a converted 800-meter runner with a 2:34 marathon pb, was running the race of her life, eventually stopping the clock at 2:15:37 -- the third-fastest women's time in history behind Brigid Kosgei's 2:14:04 world record and Paula Radcliffe's 2:15:25.

It was a time that made no sense. Assefa, 28, had run 1:59.24 for 800 meters in 2014 and made the Olympics in that event for Ethiopia in 2016 but failed make it out of the first round in Rio. With little known publicly about Assefa, the running world turned to one of the few available repositories of information, her World Athletics bio. That was little help.

Assefa's bio reveals she never raced again on the track after Rio and lists no results at all for her in 2017. When she returned to the sport with one race in 2018, it was as a road runner, but she only managed a 34:35 10k. In 2019, she improved to 31:45 and 68:24 for the 10k and half but then in 2020 and 2021 she once again didn't race at all.

Earlier this year, in March, she returned to racing after a near 2.5-year hiatus when she debuted at the Riyadh Marathon in Saudi Arabia. But she only ran 2:34:01 to place 7th. Now she was the third-fastest marathoner in history? What in the world had just happened?

One man, however, wasn't shocked with what had unfolded in Berlin. For months after the Riyadh race, Assefa's coach Gemedu Dedefo had been astounded by what she was doing in practice.

Independent journalism takes a lot of time and resources. After 24 hours, feature articles like this are moved behind our Supporters Club paywall. So be sure to come to LetsRun.com each and every day or support independent journalism by signing up for the SC today to get access to this article. You'll get access to all of our content including a bonus weekly podcast, a free t-shirt, a free base training plan and exclusive forum features. US visitors will also save 20% on shoes.

Join Our Supporters Club To Keep Reading

Sign up today to access exclusive Supporters Club content, bonus podcasts, discounts, and enhanced forums.

Choose the Annual Subscription for a bonus 12-week training program and free t-shirt.

This article is for our SC members. Thanks for supporting independent journalism and the SC.

By Jonathan Gault
September 29, 2022

As Ethiopia’s Tigist Assefa streaked to victory in the women’s race at the 2022 Berlin Marathon on Sunday, virtually everyone in the running world was struggling to process what was happening. Assefa, a converted 800-meter runner with a 2:34 marathon pb, was running the race of her life, eventually stopping the clock at 2:15:37 — the third-fastest women’s time in history behind Brigid Kosgei‘s 2:14:04 world record and Paula Radcliffe‘s 2:15:25.

It was a time that made no sense. Assefa, 28, had run 1:59.24 for 800 meters in 2014 and made the Olympics in that event for Ethiopia in 2016 but failed make it out of the first round in Rio. With little known publicly about Assefa, the running world turned to one of the few available repositories of information, her World Athletics bio. That was little help.

Article continues below player
Like this article? Subscribe to our newsletter or follow us on social media
The latest running news, sent to your inbox weekly or when urgent news breaks.

You have been subscribed.

Assefa’s bio reveals she never raced again on the track after Rio and lists no results at all for her in 2017. When she returned to the sport with one race in 2018, it was as a road runner, but she only managed a 34:35 10k. In 2019, she improved to 31:45 and 68:24 for the 10k and half but then in 2020 and 2021 she once again didn’t race at all.

Earlier this year, in March, she returned to racing after a near 2.5-year hiatus when she debuted at the Riyadh Marathon in Saudi Arabia. But she only ran 2:34:01 to place 7th. Now she was the third-fastest marathoner in history? What in the world had just happened?

One man, however, wasn’t shocked with what had unfolded in Berlin. For months after the Riyadh race, Assefa’s coach Gemedu Dedefo had been astounded by what she was doing in practice. Dedefo is one of the world’s top marathon coaches, and his women’s athletes have included Tirfi Tsegaye (2:19:41 pb, winner in Dubai, Tokyo, and Berlin), Aberu Kebede (2:20:30 pb, three-time Berlin champion), and Aselefech Mergia (2:19:31 pb, three-time Dubai champion, 2010 London champion).

Embed from Getty Images

Dedefo had never seen a woman run as fast in training as Assefa. She was breaking records for the courses his athletes used for marathon workouts. Along the way, she picked up three road race victories, improving her pbs to 30:52 for 10k and 67:28 for the half. Dedefo had been preparing her to run the Frankfurt Marathon on October 30, but it was clear to him that she needed a bigger stage. He called her agent, Gianni Demadonna, to see if he could get her into Berlin instead.

“I coach a lot of ladies,” Dedefo says. “Never I coach an athlete like her. Tigist is the strongest one.”

Knowing what she had done in training, Dedefo believed Assefa could run 2:17 so he instructed her to go out with the leaders, no matter the pace. On a perfect weather day for marathoning (53 degrees Fahrenheit, 2 mph winds), the six-woman lead pack hit halfway in a very aggressive split of 68:13.

But that wasn’t fast enough for Assefa. Prior to the race, Dedefo had told one of the pacers to keep an eye on Assefa during the race. If Assefa still looked good at 25k, and was still running with power, he wanted the pacer to pick it up.

And that’s exactly what happened. Even though Assefa hit 25k in 1:20:48 (2:16:22 pace), she ran her next two 5k segments in 15:53 and 15:46 (31:39 for the 10k segment, or 2:13:32 marathon pace) to drop the rest of the field. At 35k she was on 2:15:33 pace and she ended up finishing in 2:15:37, winning by more than two minutes to announce herself as a global marathon star.

An Achilles injury left Assefa with no choice but to try the roads

That still doesn’t explain how Assefa wound up in the marathon. For that, we have to rewind the clock to 2016. When Assefa ran at the Olympics in Rio that year for Ethiopia, running 2:00.21 in her first-round heat, she had already been dealing with an injury to her Achilles tendon. That injury worsened the following year, preventing her from racing at all in 2017. It had grown so bad that Assefa considered abandoning the sport entirely and moving to the United States in search of a job.

But a trip to Munich in 2018 changed everything. Assefa had traveled to Germany to visit Dr. Hans-Wilhelm Müller-Wohlfahrt, the famed orthopedist known as “Healing Hans” who has worked with the German national soccer team and FC Bayern Munich, and helped keep Usain Bolt healthy throughout his decorated career. After examining Assefa, Müller-Wohlfahrt determined Assefa’s Achilles was unable to handle the stress of racing in spikes. If she were to continue running, it would have to be on the roads.

Assefa debuted on the roads in Dubai in November 2018 with that inauspicious 34:35 for 10k, but her times improved, with her 68:24 at the Valencia Half in October 2019 indicating genuine promise.

Then came the pandemic. COVID cancellations hit everyone across the sport, but they were particularly painful for athletes like Assefa who did not have big sponsorship contracts. Even when races resumed, Demadonna says Assefa had few opportunities to compete. Many 2020 and 2021 events featured limited elite fields and Assefa didn’t have fast enough PBs to garner an invitation.

Training also proved difficult. Assefa was not able to leave her house at some points due to COVID lockdowns and often lacked transport to the suburban forests surrounding Addis Ababa where most Ethiopian elites train.

Embed from Getty Images

“In Ethiopia, we bring the athletes in the morning to go to the places,” Demadonna says. “It’s not like in Kenya, where you can go out of the house and you can go to run. Instead in Addis Ababa, you have to go out of the town.”

But as the COVID restrictions eased and they began looking ahead to 2022, Dedefo told Demadonna it was crucial Assefa continue to receive support, such as transport to training. He did not want her talent to go to waste.

In November 2021, Assefa signed a contract with adidas that featured no base salary but offered bonuses for strong performances. The main reason Assefa chose to make her marathon debut in Riyadh was simple: the race organizer offered an appearance fee. Though Demadonna says she was not ready to run fast and was eight kilograms (17 pounds) overweight, the offer of a guaranteed income was too good to pass up.

“I don’t remember if it was $4,000 or something like that,” Demadonna says. “And of course, with that kind of money, when your stomach is empty, you go. You have to understand that in Ethiopia when there was the pandemic, nobody was getting money. And she didn’t have a contract with any company [during COVID].”

The race went poorly, but as Assefa trained her way back into shape, her 2022 results improved. On April 30, she ran a personal best of 67:28 at the adidas campus in Herzogenaurach, Germany, to win the half marathon at the company’s Road to Records event. She followed that with a string of 10k pbs in June, culminating in a 30:52 victory at the Corrida de Langueux road race in France. After that, it was time to shift focus to a fall marathon. And we know what happened there.

Beyond the breakthrough

Whenever someone makes a breakthrough on the level of Assefa’s, it must inevitably be accompanied by a degree of skepticism. Too many high-profile athletes have been busted for performance-enhancing drugs in recent years for it not to register as a possibility.

Demadonna knows this. For a long time, he says, he did not have any doping cases among his athletes. That has changed, and now Demadonna admits, “I cannot trust anybody.”

But he also says Kenya has had more problems with doping than Ethiopia because it is not as easy to get a doctor’s prescription for a banned substance as it is in Kenya — whether the athlete is trying to dope intentionally or not.

“In Ethiopia, there are not these crazy stupid doctors that in Kenya give you whatever you want for $200 but they don’t explain to you that they can find you positive,” Demadonna says.

As for Assefa specifically, Demadonna says he has no reason to doubt her. He also believes that with modern advantages and perfect conditions, it’s possible for an elite woman to run times that seemed unbelievable just a few years ago.

“There’s a lot of talent,” Demadonna says. “2:15:37 in her second marathon. Amazing race. The shoes now are helping — by 2:00-2:20 for the women, 1:40-2:00 for the men. The way we had 2:19 athletes, they could run 2:17 with the new shoes now, 2:16:30. Mary Keitany ran 2:17:01 in a crazy race (after a 66:54 first half). [What could she run] with the new shoes? 2:15 minimum, 2:14.”

Dedefo believes Berlin may just be the beginning for Assefa. He praised her commitment and focus and believes that with athletes like Almaz AyanaGenzebe Dibaba, and Letesenbet Gidey making their debuts this fall, “the world is changing” in the women’s marathon.

Given the fact that Assefa has run 2:15:37, Dedefo knows that Assefa will need a special day to improve her personal best — a fast course and good conditions, like she had in Berlin — but he believes her fitness is still improving.

“I hope this lady, if there is no injury, she can do world record very soon,” Dedefo says. “She will show us.”


Talk about Assefa’s amazing story on our world-famous fan forum / messageboard. MB: The Story Behind The MOST SHOCKING 2:15 Marathon In History – How Tigist Assefa went from 800 also-ran to 2:15 in the marathon

Like this article? Subscribe to our newsletter or follow us on social media

The latest running news, sent to your inbox weekly or when urgent news breaks.

You have been subscribed.