America’s Best Distance Runner May Be Someone You’ve Never Heard Of
By Jonathan Gault
November 14, 2022
On Tuesday, USATF announced that the next US Olympic Marathon Trials will be held in Orlando in February 2024. With the race less than 15 months away, it’s time to start thinking about the top contenders to represent the US at the 2024 Olympics in Paris. Conner Mantz? Scott Fauble? Will a 37-year-old Galen Rupp be healthy enough to make his fifth Olympic team? What about Teshome Mekonen?
Wait a minute. Who?
What if I told you there was a 27-year-old American with a 60:02 half marathon personal best who beat Conner Mantz by a minute when they raced at the NYC Half earlier this year? He’d have a pretty good shot to make the Olympic team, right?
That is Teshome Mekonen, the American Olympic contender no one has heard of.
Teshome, who was born and raised in Tigray, Ethiopia, has only lived in the US full-time for two years but began the process of becoming a citizen in 2016. On August 29, he was sworn in as a citizen at the US Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Manhattan and on Sunday he ran his first race as an American, finishing 4th at the B.A.A. Half Marathon in Boston in 62:28.
“My vision is this, my dream is this,” Teshome tells LetsRun.com. “I’m so happy.”
Teshome already ranks among the fastest Americans of all-time in the half marathon: only Ryan Hall (59:43), Galen Rupp (59:47), Leonard Korir (59:52), and Dathan Ritzenhein (60:00) have run faster than Teshome’s 60:02 personal best from the 2018 Valencia Half Marathon.
But the Trials are held over 26.2 miles, not 13.1, and while Teshome clearly has the potential to excel at the longer distance, his two forays into the marathon have not gone according to plan. Last year, ahead of his debut in New York, Teshome spent his buildup training in Colorado with one of America’s top marathoners, Elkanah Kibet. While Kibet ran a terrific race to finish 4th, Teshome struggled to 20th place in 2:22:16.
Looking back, Teshome thinks he pushed himself too hard in practice, leaving him spent by race day.
“My mileage was high because [I wasn’t] experienced,” Teshome says. “Every day was a long run, too much. After that, I come to the competition, my body is lost. Finished. Too much mileage, too much pain. After 35k, I [had nothing left].”
Teshome gave the marathon another shot in Ottawa in May. His prep races went well, running 60:40 at the NYC Half and soloing a 61:47 at the Brooklyn Half. But on race day, he once again fell short of expectations, running 2:13:27 to finish 5th.
Teshome isn’t quite as sure what went wrong in that race (he thinks he shouldn’t have raced so hard in Brooklyn a month out from the marathon) but still believes he can become a great marathoner. His next attempt will come in Houston in January, where he is aiming to run 2:08. Eventually, he wants to run 2:03.
When Teshome Mekonen thinks back on his first meeting with Feven Alem, one thing stands out. The Dress.
This was in 2014, and Teshome, who had taken up running in his late teenage years, was a few years into a stint running for Mesfin Engineering, a professional running team based in Mekelle, the capital of Ethiopia’s Tigray Region. Teshome was resting in his dorm at the Mesfin camp after practice when his coach introduced him to Feven. It was a brief meeting — so brief Teshome can’t even remember what color The Dress was. Only that it was a subtle color, some type of pastel, and that it looked so beautiful on her, he was taken aback.
The meeting had come about because Teshome’s coach had been trying to convince Feven, an agent, to represent Teshome as an athlete. She decided to take him on as a client, and soon after they began dating, marrying in 2016. They now have two children together, Yonatan (6) and Eleni (2), and, whenever Teshome recalls the day they met, he still brings up the dress Feven wore — though he jokes that he has not seen it since that day.
Feven is the reason Teshome wound up a US citizen. Born in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, Feven is the daughter of Alem Kahsay, a runner for Ethiopia’s national team in the 1980s and 1990s (in Tigrayan culture, you take your father’s first name as your last name; for ease of understanding, everyone in this story is referred to by first name only). Feven moved to Central Harlem in 1996, where Alem raised her as a single father (Feven’s mother and brother died back home in Ethiopia shortly after she made the move). Both Alem and Feven became citizens, with Alem establishing himself as a fixture of the New York running community, working for the New York Road Runners and the Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn, where he has coached cross country and track since 1998.
Upon graduating from Boston College in 2012, Feven decided to follow her father into the running world, starting her own agency, Feven International Management. Once Teshome began working with Feven, he started racing all around the world, finishing 11th for Ethiopia at the 2016 World Half Marathon Championships. For the next few years, the couple would split their time between New York and Ethiopia, where Teshome would train and Feven managed a group of roughly 100 athletes including 65:07 half marathoner Caroline Chepkoech and 9:06 steepler Daisy Jepkemei.
Their lives changed once the COVID pandemic hit the world in early 2020. Teshome had come back to the US to run the NYC Half in March of that year, and when the race was cancelled and global travel drew to a halt, he wound up staying.
Like many other families, the pandemic hit them hard financially. Feven had already begun to scale back her management duties after giving birth to Eleni on Christmas Eve 2019. Meanwhile, Teshome’s sponsorship contract with Nike had expired at the end of 2019 and suddenly there were no races on the calendar. But Feven was able to receive unemployment benefits during the pandemic, and with some help from her father, who lives around the corner from them in Harlem, they were able to get by.
“In our culture, we support each other,” Feven says. “We have a very strong relationship with my father, so we were very grateful to have him. We leaned on each other to get through the pandemic.”
By November 2020, Teshome had the opportunity to return to Ethiopia for training, but tensions had been rising between the federal government and his home region of Tigray. Those tensions erupted into civil war when soldiers from the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) attacked a federal army base near Mekelle, to which Ethiopian president Abiy Ahmed responded by launching a counter-assault with federal troops. Teshome opted to stay in the US, no longer feeling it was safe to return to Ethiopia.
“We were very afraid about the situation,” Feven says. “We didn’t really know what was happening and the information that we were getting, it was really scary.”
As the spouse of an American citizen, Teshome was able to receive a conditional green card in June 2017, but because their marriage was less than two years old at the time, he had to re-apply for the permanent, 10-year green card in 2019. Converting the conditional green card to a permanent one took longer than expected due to COVID-related delays, but he was ultimately awarded the permanent green card in February 2022. From there, he applied for full citizenship in March 2022 and, after passing the test, was sworn in on August 29.
Teshome says he’s grateful to be an American for a number of reasons. He feels safer and more comfortable here than in Ethiopia.
“There’s more freedom in America,” Feven says, translating for Teshome from Amharic. “He mentioned having a love for the people and also there’s more opportunities to grow, in your life and your career, in this country.”
And from a running perspective, Teshome says it will be easier to deal with USATF than the capricious Ethiopian Athletics Federation. While USATF is hardly immune from selection gaffes, it is far more organized than the EAF, whose selection policies are poorly-communicated and subject to change on a whim. No matter what happens, Teshome knows that if he earns the Olympic standard and finishes in the top three at the Trials, he’ll be on the plane to Paris.
“In Ethiopia, you would run and sometimes the federation is good, sometimes it is not good,” Teshome says. “Too much corruption. In America, [if you run well], you qualify with the time, you go direct in. I like this.”
(Teshome is not yet eligible to represent the US in international competition until World Athletics approves his transfer-of-allegiance application. Feven says there is no official timeline for that decision but they are hoping for approval by December).
Teshome welcomes that certainty, because a number of important issues in his life remain up in the air. The first is his sponsorship situation. While he received some gear from Nike the last few years, he hasn’t had a contract since COVID hit and has remained in limbo as he switched nationalities. Now that he is Feven’s only client, there is pressure on them to secure a deal. The fact that Teshome beat Conner Mantz by a minute at the NYC Half in March shows he can compete with America’s very best right now, but Feven says that the sponsors she has spoken to want to see a little more.
“As a 60:02 half marathoner, I’d think that he’d have a sponsorship as an American athlete, but that only changed recently and also he’s moving up to the marathon,” Feven says. “In speaking to some of the sponsors, they just want to see how he does in his upcoming races to determine if they’ll give him a sponsorship or not.”
The other issue, which weighs far more heavily on Teshome’s mind, is the situation back home in Ethiopia. One of his uncles was killed in the conflict, and his brother was injured. He knows little about the fate of the rest of his family; the Ethiopian government has cut phone lines and blocked communication in Tigray, making contact with the outside world close to impossible. Teshome last spoke with his family in June 2021, and though he received a voice note from his mother later that year, there was no way for him to tell when it had been recorded. All the uncertainty has left him stressed and unable to sleep.
“It is very difficult,” Teshome says. “I miss them so much.”
On November 2, the TPLF and Ethiopian government signed a peace agreement in South Africa, agreeing to bring an end to a conflict that has cost thousands of lives and displaced many more. Both sides have been accused of committing atrocities — as have Eritrean forces, who joined the conflict on the government’s side — but it is the people of the Tigray region who have suffered the most. The United Nations has reported that Ethiopian government has blocked humanitarian aid to the region, resulting in a lack of food and medical access for millions.
Feven, whose father hails from Tigray, said the news of the truce brought feelings of relief, joy, and hope — but also doubt.
“I think it’s the first step in the right direction, but I don’t think this particular agreement alone will bring lasting peace,” Feven wrote in an email to LetsRun. “The issues are far too complex and many parties are involved. Despite the signing of the ceasefire, there are reports that air strikes are still being conducted on people of Tigray. They still have no access to their bank accounts, telecommunication is still off, humanitarian aid isn’t flowing in (no medicine, no food, no sort of assistance). Unfortunately, this new development hasn’t changed much for the people, but the politicians seem to be at a more amicable state.”
Teshome feels similarly.
“I am very happy about the peace talks, but it hasn’t changed the fact that the people of Tigray are under a siege,” he says.
Until recently, Teshome had been receiving workouts from Haji Adilo, coach to some of Ethiopia’s top marathoners, but he hasn’t heard from Haji in a few months. Instead, he’s been coaching himself, with Alem occasionally offering input. When preparing for a race, he trains in Colorado to take advantage of the altitude; otherwise, he’s in New York with Feven, Yonatan, and Eleni.
Gradually, Teshome is growing accustomed to his new home. He spoke virtually no English when he first came to the US in 2016, and while he still relies on Feven to help him articulate more detailed ideas, he is capable of holding his own in a conversation. He’s also getting used to the cold. When he first came here, Teshome found it difficult to train when the temperatures dropped, but with a few winters under his belt, he handles it much better.
“Now, when you see him and other Ethiopians, it’s seems like he grew up in New York the way I did, because he’s like, ‘I’m not cold, it’s not cold,'” Feven says. “It’s really funny, actually.”
Overall, Teshome is grateful for the opportunity his US citizenship has afforded him. He knows that his hopes — of a sponsorship contract and an Olympic berth — are luxuries when compared to the basic necessities so many of his native Tigrayans are lacking back home. And even as Teshome begins his new life in America, he is committed to remembering the one he left behind in Ethiopia. When he crossed the finish line in New York in March, he crossed his arms over his head in a protest reminiscent of the one Feyisa Lilesa delivered at the finish line of the Olympic marathon in 2016. He did it at the Ottawa Marathon in May, and again in Boston on Sunday after the B.A.A. Half, repeatedly chanting, “Stop Tigray genocide.” More than any running goal, he desires lasting peace in Tigray.
“The war completely needs to stop,” Teshome says.
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