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Unknown Ethiopian Girma Bekele Gebre shocks racing world with third at NYC marathon

Girma Bekele Gebre of Ethiopia crosses the finish

Girma Bekele Gebre of Ethiopia crosses the finish line in Central Park to take third place in the men's competition in the 2019 TCS New York City Marathon on Sunday, Nov. 3, 2019. Credit: James Escher

Girma Bekele Gebre was the runner shrouded in mystery, surrounded by people who were rooting for him even though they knew nothing beyond his last name and three-digit bib number.

The Ethiopian didn’t officially win the New York City Marathon — Geoffrey Kamworor did — but with every step Sunday, Gebre dominated conversation, the very fast man who had become a subject of intrigue, even mystery. The telecast had little information on him, and the million or so spectators had less. When you looked up his bio on the New York Road Racer’s website, it merely said, “No records found.”

It was the perfect making of a myth: A non-elite runner, who started with the second pack, immediately began his sprint to the front, and then often led. In the sea of single-digit bibs, Gebre was a little bit of a spectacle with his pedestrian No. 443.

“I ran really fast to catch up,” he said through an interpreter. “But I actually passed them and I had to slow back down again.”

He came in third, in 2 hours, 8 minutes, 38 seconds — a staggering personal best by five minutes, he said — and lost his anonymity half as fast. And Gebre didn’t get any less interesting with more familiarity. For one, he had to leave New York to conquer New York.

Gebre has lived here, though after the race he clarified it was only for a couple months and that the higher elevation in his current home of Ethiopia helped him train and excel in the United States (he trains in the highlands of Addis Ababa). He regularly runs with the West Side Runners Club, though, and has won 13 U.S. races, according to the Association of Road Racing Statisticians. Two of those races even paid out a then career-high $1,200 and one included a May 2017 win at the AirBnb Brooklyn Half Marathon, which netted him $1,000.

He made $40,000 for this third-place finish Sunday, bringing the 26-year-old’s career U.S. earnings to $59,150, roughly 60 percent of what Kamworor earned in a little over two hours by winning on Sunday.

And he just ran the Pittsburgh Marathon in May, finishing second in 2:13:46, then a personal best.

“At that point, I had been living here, but this time, because I prepared at home at altitude, I was very well prepared, and I expected to run a better time,” Gebre said. “I’m very happy to have improved my personal best . . . I love running in New York, and when the crowds were cheering for me, I felt really special joy.”

Gebre doesn’t have an agent or a sponsor, he said. He has a coach back in Ethiopia, though he doesn’t train with perhaps the best-known Ethiopian in the race, Lelisa Desisa. (Desisa, the reigning champ, had to drop out at Mile 7.)

“I would like to get” an agent, Gebre said, a fairly modest goal, given the circumstances. “I’d like to have someone to arrange races for me . . . I’m going right back to Ethiopia quickly. I don’t know what my next race will be . . . I just compete individually, so I don’t know what I’ll be running next.”

For now, that is.

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