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How a New York City Marathon Win 10 Years Ago Transformed Firehiwot Dado’s Life

Because of her 2011 victory in New York, Firehiwot Dado has given her family greater opportunities than she once had.

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The 2011 women’s New York City Marathon plaque mostly serves as a display table for rudimentary Lego creations.

It sits on a mantel in Firehiwot Dado’s Addis Ababa home, alongside several other awards, victory photos, and doodles that her older son likes to prominently display. In a way it serves as the perfect kind of representation for what running, and winning the New York City Marathon in particular, has done for Dado’s life: It provided a chance to raise children in radically different conditions than those she experienced growing up. Dado’s children will grow up with economic stability, robust educational opportunities, and, yes, those plastic constructable toys.

Dado was born in Asella, Ethiopia, about two hours south of Addis Ababa, home to some of Ethiopia’s greatest athletes, including Haile Gebrselassie, a former world record holder who won four world championships and two Olympic gold medals. Her career started in early adolescence when she developed a love for sprinting. When she heard a story on the radio about Ejegayehu Dibaba, the older sister of Tirunesh (five-time world champion and three-time Olympic champion in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters) and Genzebe (2016 Olympic 1500-meter silver medalist), who was from the neighboring town of Bekoji, she decided to move to Addis. Dado then transformed her life through running.

At the time, Dado’s single mother was supporting her and her brothers by selling tella, a traditional beer brewed from various grains, usually the Ethiopian-native teff. Her oldest brother had recently found his way to Norway and was driving school buses. He sent her a little bit of money to buy shoes, and Dado ran them into the ground. She trained, excelled quickly, and joined a club in Asella.

While visiting Asella in January 2021, for Ethiopian Christmas, Dado took me on a run one morning through sprawling, open meadows. We ran alongside a trench for a few minutes before coming up to a concrete bridge.

“Haile built this bridge after he made a lot of money,” to make the local farmer’s lives easier, Dado told me in Amharic. Asella has certainly changed, but not from the vantage point of this meadow. Out on the main road there are now a few hotels, like the Kenenisa Hotel, named after Kenenisa Bekele (former world-record holder in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters), and the Derartu Tulu Hotel, which is at the top of the road and is owned by Ethiopia’s first women’s Olympic Champion. Less than a mile from Dado’s home is a tartan track where the youth national championships have often been held, called the Asella Green stadium.

Dado is in the finishing stages of building a new home for her mother in the same compound. She gave me a brief tour, and I commented on how beautiful it was. She smiled, but lamented that installing running water could be a very long process. “It’s not like Addis [Ababa], where these things can happen quickly. In the countryside, you never really know.”

Over the course of five days in the countryside I met several of her relatives, many of whom she has supported over the years. Becoming a successful athlete in Ethiopia can be tenuous; people are proud, but expect a lot.

I was there to conduct ethnographic research for my Ph.D., which focuses on the lives of Ethiopian women runners, and I met Dado through a friend. As we got to know each other better, Dado offered me a spare room in her Addis Ababa home, where I’ve spent the better part of the past two years. In contrast to her home in Asella, and so many homes of the lives of young Ethiopian athletes, we almost always had consistent running water.

But when Dado arrived in 2006 to Addis Ababa, she did not have a spare room to host anyone. She rented an individual room in a compound in Kotobe, a neighborhood on the northeastern edge of the city where many athletes reside because of its proximity to the forest. She had a small mattress, a single burner electric stove, and a few pairs of used shoes she got after joining the Oromia Federal Police club.

“I was so scared in those days,” Dado says. “Coming to the city from the countryside is a big deal, and to be here alone as a woman, could be terrifying and lonely. But what choice did I have? There was no other option for me at that time. It was only running. So I would just focus on that. Training, eating, sleeping, training, eating, sleeping.”

It paid off. Haji Adilo, coach to some of the most successful Ethiopian distance runners, scouted Dado at a road race and suggested she join his training group. Unlike many athletes, Dado never really competed at track races, but quickly progressed to the roads. In her debut 26.2-mile race, at the 2008 Košice Peace Marathon in Slovakia, she placed second, earning entry into larger races.

In 2009, Dado unleashed her first surprising victory when she won the Rome Marathon in 2:27:08. When Ethiopian athletes win the Rome marathon by a large margin, they traditionally take off their shoes in the final straightaway to commemorate Abebe Bikila, Ethiopia’s first Olympic gold medalist who won the 1960 marathon in Rome running barefoot. Because she was unknown, no one prepared Dado for this possibility, and the race director approached her on the bike in the final stages yelling “Shoes! Shoes! Shoes!” along with some other phrases in English she did not understand. Dado thought she had committed a faux pas, wearing her sponsor’s shoes which were different than the race sponsor, and finished the race in a frenzy. In 2010, she defended her title in 2:25:28, and though she knew the shoe tradition, did not have time to take them off because her margin was only two seconds.

For her three-peat in 2011, Dado was assured victory and (at last) had time to take off her shoes, crossing the finish line barefooted. The iconic photo of her Rome Marathon victory sits on the aforementioned mantel, amid other trophies, plaques, action figures, and children’s trinkets.

Firehiwot Dado crossing Rome marathon finish line barefoot
Firehiwot Dado crosses the finish line in the 17th Rome Marathon, barefoot, on March 20, 2011. (Photo: FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP via Getty Images)

Later in 2011, Dado was invited to compete at the 42nd New York City Marathon. She remembers feeling honored to participate at an event that commemorated the 10th anniversary of 9/11. “There was a lot of memory and celebration. It was humbling to get to race in New York that day.”

Kenyan Mary Keitany was the heavy favorite and opened up a large gap early on. But Dado ran stride-for-stride with Bizunesh Deba, who represented Ethiopia but lived in New York, in the later miles after entering Central Park. Dado pulled away in the final mile for the win in 2:23:15. It was a massive payday for Dado, who took home a total of $180,000 in prize money and time bonuses. Although Dado was invited to return in 2012, she only took home a fraction of potential earnings after the race was cancelled at the last minute, due to Hurricane Sandy.

Dado feels a lot of empathy for the athletes who were due to compete in races in 2020 during the pandemic but never got the chance. She feels for the people in New York, specifically, who suffered so much during the onset of the pandemic. We discussed how for some athletes, early in their career, race cancellations could be devastating.

New York has come to mean a lot to Dado, who remembers what it was like to visit the city the first time, 10 years ago. “Sleeping there was hard, with all the sirens constantly going off. And the smells…oh, the smells,” she added, laughing. “But New York is a resilient city and provided me many opportunities.”

Her children, now aged 6 and 3, will one day understand how a race like New York was instrumental in providing the opportunities they will have throughout their lives. But like many Ethiopian athletes who transform their lives through running, Dado hopes her kids have more options to choose from—she would rather see her sons attending the New York City Marathon as race directors, or marketers, or a role that fulfills them and provides stability.

“First, they need to focus on school, and getting a good education,” Dado says. “Then, if they are interested in running, they can participate.”

But there’s no denying that traversing that 26.2-mile route 10 years ago changed the course of Dado’s life—and that of her family.