Marathon man

Born in Ethiopia, Haile Seteng is the fastest long-distance runner his age in the world.

marathon feat 88 (photo credit: )
marathon feat 88
(photo credit: )
'I had lost my job and was hanging around the apartment with nothing to do but eat. I started to develop a paunch, and my weight had reached 65 kilos. Desperate and having nothing better to do, I went outside in my regular clothes and started running down the street." This led him on a course that 15 years later would turn him into the greatest marathon runner in the world over the age of 40. Nowadays, Seteng covers the 42-kilometer race at a pace of just over three minutes per kilometer. In part because of discrepancies between the Ethiopian and Gregorian calendars, Seteng's true age is unknown, and could be anywhere between 45 and 51 years old. He grew up in the Gondar highlands of Ethiopia, the oldest of nine children. The family's staple food, injera - a corn-based pita bread - was supplemented by home-grown fruit, vegetables, milk and meat "I would walk an hour and a quarter to get to school every morning," he says. "When my father needed me to tend the farm animals I would have to rush to avoid being punished by the strict school principal for being late."
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After completing 12 years of school, he traveled 800 kilometers to Addis Ababa, where he found work in a garage. In Addis Ababa he joined the great wave of Beta Israel, Ethiopian Jews seeking to leave for Israel. He arrived in Israel in 1991 as part of Operation Solomon, immigrating with his pregnant wife, Avayeh (now Ahuva), and their two children. Arriving with just a few modest belongings, the family was placed in a caravan in Tiberias. "Soon I was hospitalized with asthma, which placed a heavy burden on the family," Ahuva says. "Our third child was born and we were resettled in Acre, where Haile searched for employment without success, suffering the same difficulties as so many of his fellow olim from Ethiopia." The family then settled in an apartment in Hadera, where he worked in a local school until he was fired. With few job prospects, he sunk into a deep depression and began to overeat. That initial run changed his life. Invigorated by exercise, he began to run regularly. "I told my Ethiopian counselor [provided by the Jewish Agency] about my new activity and he encouraged me to enter a competitive race," Seteng says. Israeli distance running is now a well-organized and well-funded sport. It's popular, too, with various races affiliated with the Tiberias Marathon attracting close to 2,000 entrants earlier this year. The situation was starkly different in 1992, however. Seteng was just one of a few dozen aspiring competitors when he took five buses that year to Kibbutz Hakkuk near Hof Ginossar for his first 10-kilometer race. Prizes for the event were NIS 300 for the winner and certificates for the rest. Seteng says he fantasized about using the prize money to buy a pair of running shoes - a dream he nearly realized after placing second in his regular shoes. He returned home empty-handed but exhilarated, determined to train harder and earn those shoes. He made a name for himself within the running community and won his first race in 1993. The victory, which came at the Ra'anana 10K, earned him a television set. He ran his first marathon that same year, completing the Tiberias Marathon in two hours and 34 minutes - good enough for an 11th-place finish. As he began to collect medals and small amounts of prize money, Seteng gained recognition and support from the Israeli Athletics Association and the Elite Sports program (the operating arm of the Israeli Olympic Committee). Within a few years he was running in marathons around the world, from Helsinki to Boston, placing respectably among all the runners and winning within his age group every time. In 2003, the Israeli Olympic Committee informed Seteng that he was a candidate to represent Israel at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. Plagued by thigh muscle cramps, he would need to meet a time requirement to earn his spot, and he was left with just the Venice Marathon to do it. "The last section of the Venice Marathon is known for its difficult ups and downs as the route passes over the famous canal bridges. But with the promise of Olympic participation to spur me on, I pushed myself and finished in eighth place, with a personal best time of two hours, 14 minutes and 21 seconds," he recalls. He was on his way to the Olympics. Traditionally the last event of the Summer Olympics, the marathon commenced late in the afternoon of Sunday, August 29, 2004. Seteng emerged from the shadows of the Olympic stadium and entered the track alongside fellow Israeli Asaf Bimro. Greeted by the cheers of tens of thousands of spectators, Seteng was ranked 87th out of 102 competitors. But though the Israeli runner would never come close to winning, commentators from all over the world noted that Seteng was not only the oldest marathoner, but the oldest competitor in any track and field event. "I just hoped to represent Israel with honor and finish respectably," he remembers. Athenians lined every meter of the route, cheering on the runners as they sped by. A number of top runners dropped out during the race, exhausted by the heat, but Seteng was feeling good and running in the middle of the pack. He'd put on four kilos prior to the race with a carbohydrate-heavy diet, but he would lose all the weight during the race. "As I reached the 25-kilometer mark, I was surprised to hear the voice of Zahava Shmueli, the veteran Israeli long-distance runner who had come to support Bimro and myself, shouting that I was in 30th place! This really encouraged me and I picked up the pace, passing runners along the way as I headed towards the finish," he remembers. He entered the Panathenaiko stadium (where the ancient games were held) to an ovation from the packed stands, unnecessarily completing an additional lap because of a misunderstanding with an official. But his time had been clocked correctly. Looking up to the official standings, Seteng was astounded to see that at 2:17:25, he had placed 20th and confirmed his status as the greatest marathoner his age in the world. Spurred on by the accomplishment, Seteng has continued to push himself, winning many more races since the Olympics. "When I think back to 1993, I would never have imagined that I would have to put up extra shelves in our apartment just to hold my trophies," he laughs. The first quarter of 2006 has seen Seteng reach new heights. In January, in Tiberias, he became the Israeli Marathon Champion, pushing long-time rival and friend Bimro into second place among the Israeli runners. In February he added the Ein Gedi half-marathon to his list of titles. And on April 8 he won the 40-plus category at the Paris Marathon by an astounding 16 minutes, placing 22nd overall in a field of 35,000. His Paris time would also have earned him first place in his age category at this year's prestigious London and Boston marathons. (Because of the immense physical effort it takes to run a marathon, runners choose only three to four races per year. Paris, Boston and London were all within a few weeks of each other.) Seteng believes he can still improve his performance and says he'd like to complete a marathon in two hours and 13 minutes. His training takes him on runs of dozens of kilometers almost every single day. Despite his medals and trophies, Seteng retains a noble modesty. He expresses pride in his achievements but retains the humility he learned in his African childhood. And while his athletic achievements would likely earn him sponsorship and endorsement deals in other countries, the sports market here has little use for long-distance runners. His growing family still struggles, he says. His modest Hadera apartment is still home to Seteng, his wife, and seven of their eight children, including Liron, the family's seven-month-old new addition. But he is buoyed, at least a bit, by his folk hero status in his new hometown. Small kids often join him on the streets during his training runs, quickly tiring from the effort of maintaining his pace. "When they say that they cannot keep up, I tell them that there is nothing that they cannot do if they are willing to work hard at achieving their goals," he says.