NEW YORK (03-Nov) - It's been more than a year since Tadesse Abraham has raced 26.2 miles, but he's eager to restart the momentum that carried him to career highs in 2016. He'll finally be back at it Sunday in the TCS New York City Marathon here, joining a formidable field that includes defending champion Ghirmay Ghebreslassie, former world record holder Wilson Kipsang, two-time world cross country champion Geoffrey Kamworor, and two-time Boston champ Lelisa Desisa.
After lowering his PR and cracking the Top 10 at the Olympics, Abraham was sidelined this past March with a stress fracture in his sacrum, keeping him from the starting line at the London Marathon. It was a disappointing setback for the 35-year-old Eritrean-born Swiss star, but nothing compared to the adversity he has faced before.
In 2004, Abraham, then 21, sought asylum in Switzerland after leaving the Eritrean national team in Belgium during the world cross country championships. He prefers not to discuss the specifics of his reasons for leaving, but Eritrea has been plagued with turmoil for decades. The United Nations has long accused the government of human rights violations and political opposition is banned.
"Switzerland is a neutral country, I knew this from school," Abraham said Friday, overlooking the NYC finish line in Central Park. "I was running away from my country because of political problems, so I wanted to get out of politics. I just to want to save my life and have my own life."
He eventually settled in Geneva, where he lives today, and in 2014 he earned Swiss citizenship. He represented his adopted nation at the European Championships that year, placing ninth in the marathon. "I have integrated well. The country belongs to me," Abraham says. "Doing something for my country is my pleasure. And wearing the shirt and doing something for my country really makes you proud.
He put the Swiss singlet on again at the 2015 IAAF World Championships, finishing 19th in the Beijing heat. Last year he lowered his PR to 2:06:40 while finishing fourth in the Seoul Marathon, then placed seventh in the Rio Olympics (2:11:42). In between he won the gold medal in the half marathon at the European Championships.
The momentum came to an injury-induced halt while preparing for London in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, this winter. But by mid-June he was back in training under the guidance of coach Gemedu Dedefo, whose group includes Ethiopians Guye Adola and Lemi Berhanu. Adola was the surprise runner up in September's Berlin Marathon, while Berhanu won Boston in 2016.
After a July training camp in St. Moritz, Switzerland, the squad relocated to even higher altitude at Addis Ababa so Abraham and Berhanu could continue preparations for New York. Abraham logged 180-200 kilometers (112-124 miles) a week in training this fall, with no lingering sign of the injury. He tested his fitness at the Greifenseelauf Half Marathon in Uster, Switzerland, winning in 1:03:19 over a challenging course.
Now he's ready to get back to the marathon. Abraham choose New York for his return because, he says, "every athlete, every sportsman likes to run in the biggest race. I have watched New York for many years on TV. And I always say that I wish I could be there as a competitor, fighting against the best athletes." With New York's undulating course and lack of pacesetters, he is unlikely to PR, but he wanted to test himself in an Abbott World Marathon Majors event.
As for a race plan, that's not Abraham's style. "I'm a person who decides during the race," he says. "I don't make any strategy in any race. I'm going to see what is going to happen and make my decision then." That said, he knows that some of the other athletes have targeted the course record (Geoffrey Mutai's 2:05:06 from 2011) and "if it's very crazy pace I won't follow them."
Joining him in New York will be his wife, Senait, and their 6-year-old son, Elod. Senait is a recreational runner (the couple met at a road race in 2008) and Elod has already taken up the sport ("He just runs 1K," Abraham says).
Being apart from his family during long training stints in Ethiopia is difficult, but also beneficial. "When I leave them at home it gives me a big responsibility," Abraham says. "I'm not just running for me, I'm running for my family. It gives me more energy, more power to go on."
He isn't concerned about the 14-month gap since his last time racing a marathon. "In fact, I'm nervous when my training doesn't go well," he says. "But just now when I just walked over to the finish line I realized that I am feeling the same as I did in Rio. So that means that the body is good and it's ready."