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Gotytom Gebreslase is the Fastest Runner You’ve Never Heard Of

Lack of coverage of women's sports means that runners like Gotytom Gebreslase often don't get the attention they deserve.

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On Sunday, September 26, 2021, Gotytom Gebreslase won the Berlin Marathon in her debut with a time of 2:20:09, the eighth fastest winning time in Berlin Marathon’s history. Alison Wade wrote about Gebreslase’s victory in her popular Fast Women newsletter the next day; she was able to recap earlier moves in the race between the top pack of women runners, but after 35 kilometers, when Gebreslase really started pressing, the TV coverage completely shifted to the men’s race, with particular attention paid to third-place finisher, Kenenisa Bekele.

“Bekele has earned his headliner status, but there also has to be room for storytelling about the sport’s emerging stars, and broadcasters need to put more effort into giving women’s races half of the TV coverage,” Wade says, having covered the sport for well over a decade. While she acknowledges there can be logistical challenges to giving both races coverage, Wade believes we can do significantly better: “We miss out on some very exciting racing, and it’s harder for fans to get excited about women’s running and for some of these women to become well known.”

A number of studies have documented the relative lack of media coverage women’s sports receive across a range of disciplines. Women of color, in particular, receive even less coverage. And women who don’t speak English—often the case in long-distance running, when many runners are from Ethiopia and Kenya—receive hardly any media attention at all.

Wade has frequently lamented the difficulties in covering a sport even when we do hear directly from athletes, often without a translator, with poor audio, and when athletes are placed in environments where they do not feel comfortable. “Even when the top Ethiopian and Kenyan women do make it on screen, it’s rare that we learn their backstories,” Wade says. “All these months after Gebreslase won in Berlin, I still know very little about her.”

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Gotytom Gebreslase’s Story

Gebreslase, like so many Ethiopian runners, comes from a family of farmers. However, unlike many other fellow women athletes, her parents were supportive of her running pursuits from an early age before she reached success. Growing up in the Tigray region, her family enjoyed listening to stories about Ethiopia’s running greats on the radio, and Gebreslase remembers seeing other children running at school and wanted to join them.

When coaches from Mesfin Industrial, a nearby club, came to a school competition and asked her to join their team, Gebreslase leapt at the opportunity. When she traveled to Addis Ababa for the first time for a club competition in 2011, she was selected for the junior national team. From there, she focused her energies on the track.

“I stayed on the track for a long time because I was getting good track results,” Gebreslase says. Her marathon debut seemed a long time in the making. To many outside Ethiopia, she seemed like an overnight success, because she was not a global force at World Championships and Olympics. But in her first European competition, Gebreslase won the World Youth Championships in Lille, France, running 8:56.36 for the 3,000 meters. The following year, she finished third at the African Championships in the 5,000 meters.

Haji Adilo, one of the world’s most successful marathon coaches, started scouting her while on the track, believing she had a lot of potential for longer distances. When he learned that Gebreslase often trained on her own, he realized her potential was limitless. Gebreslase joined Adilo’s training group and started the switch to the marathon. She increased her volume and intensity, and as they got closer to her debut, they believed a win was possible.

“As any runner would say, when you go to a competition, you must think to yourself, ‘I will win,’” Gebreslase says. She’s an avid practitioner of positive psychology. “I knew my training went well before Berlin and my coaches told me I was ready, but I didn’t have a lot of experience. So even though I was saying to myself I could win, I knew it was my first marathon. I wasn’t sure what would happen and how I would feel throughout the race. But after 30 kilometers I broke the field and was alone and I had a good sense that I would win.”

Gotytom Gebreslase celebrates breaking the tape at the Berlin Marathon
Gotytom Gebreslase celebrates placing first of the women in the Berlin Marathon on September 26, 2021 in front of Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. (Photo: Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP via Getty)

Usually, by the time an Ethiopian woman wins a World Major Marathon, she has won other mid-size marathons. Gebreslase, however, is only beginning to adjust to a more long-term suitable training lifestyle. She rents a house in the Kotobe neighborhood of Addis Ababa with her sister, who has played an instrumental role in adjusting to the more strenuous demands of marathon life.

“She’s been with me every step of the way,” Gebreslase says. “Along with my mother and father she’s supported me more than anyone throughout the whole process. She prepares meals for me after training and supports me and helps with everything. She has my back and I’ve really needed her up until this point.”

Gebreslase earned a significant paycheck from Berlin, and has some money, but has yet to make any big purchases. “In the future I’ll want to buy a nice house and live in it. But I just want to be happy and enjoy this stage of life now and then continue progressing to the next stages.”

Gebreslase does not track her weekly mileage or question her coach’s training. Adilo notes that she’s both highly coachable and very confident in herself and the training, which is why he thinks she’s capable of becoming great. “[Gebreslase] has even made big advancements in her training since Berlin,” Adilo says. “She set a personal best in the half marathon in December [1:05:36 in Bahrain], and if the weather and conditions are good in Tokyo, she could do something very special there.”

She doesn’t have a specific time she’s aiming to hit, but earning the spot on Ethiopia’s national team in order to travel to the world athletics championships in Eugene, Oregon, in July is the primary goal.

If conditions in Tokyo this Sunday are good, a record-setting time may be in the cards. If not, Gebreslase still plans to put her best foot forward and earn a spot on the world championship team. Regardless of how she does, her story—and the women’s race in Tokyo—is one that deserves air time, context, and narrative depth.