Ethiopia’s Gebre Gebremariam is a closely followed favorite

Marathoner Gebre Gebremariam admires the Ethiopian art work at the Addis Red Sea restaurant in the South End.
Marathoner Gebre Gebremariam admires the Ethiopian art work at the Addis Red Sea restaurant in the South End.
matthew j. lee/globe staff

Ethiopian celebrities don’t come much bigger than marathoner Gebre Gebremariam. This much is clear when he enters the Addis Red Sea restaurant.

The South End eatery serves traditional Ethiopian fare and draws diners who want a taste of home.

A couple of starstruck waitresses tentatively approach Gebremariam and say, “Selam,” hello in Amharic. At the far end of the main dining room, a group of Ethiopian coffee promoters recently arrived from the capital Addis Ababa spot Gebremariam and shout the same greeting. Before the night is over, the waitresses, the coffee promoters, and a handful of other patrons will pose for pictures with Gebremariam and wish him good luck in the Boston Marathon on Monday.

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With a personal best of 2 hours 4 minutes 53 seconds, Gebremariam, 28, is among the favorites for the men’s title. He should challenge defending champion Wesley Korir from Kenya for the win. In his marathon debut, Gebremariam won the 2010 New York City Marathon, then finished third in the 2011 Boston Marathon six months later. He boasts a résumé filled with impressive 10,000-meter performances on the track (personal-best 26:52:33) and international cross-country wins, proving his speed, strength, and versatility.

“To win a major marathon is very big, especially Boston,” says Gebremariam. “I tried to win Boston two times. Last year, it was too hot. I want to win this race because I know the benefit of winning this race. In Ethiopia, if an athlete wins New York City and Boston, they put him in very high regard.”

Already his accomplishments garner extra attention on the streets of Addis Ababa and at Addis Red Sea. And he embraces it all with his gregarious personality. At one point inside the restaurant, Gebremariam shakes so many hands he seems like a one-man welcoming committee. When competing in his home country, Boston-based agent Mark Wetmore says Gebremariam is treated like a rock star.

It doesn’t hurt that Gebremariam is one half of the first couple of Ethiopian distance running. His wife, Werknesh Kidane, is a sports star in her own right. When they met, she was the more accomplished, better-known runner. Kidane will compete in the BAA 5K on Sunday. Asked if she has given her husband any marathon advice, Kidane, the tiny, soft-spoken opposite of her tall, talkative husband, says, “Yes, train well and rest well.”

“In Ethiopia, we have a very nice tradition with everybody cheering for you,” says the 6-foot, 132-pound Gebremariam. “You can walk down every street in Addis and they ask for your autograph and your photo. They have a big place [in their hearts] for famous runners there.”

Waitress Edele Mekonnen agrees and adds, “[Gebre] is very popular. You can ask anyone from Ethiopia and they know him. I know him and I don’t even follow running.”

Sitting down, Gebremariam remarks how the restaurant reminds him of Addis Ababa where he lives and trains. He is speaking of the food. All around generous portions of spicy lentils, chickpea paste, marinated chicken, and cubed beef rest atop a spongy flatbread called injera. The place smells of garlic, ginger, and onions. But Gebremariam easily could be talking about the way other diners recognize him and excitedly greet him during his meal.

Gebremariam quickly drew national attention with his gold medal at the 2002 World Junior Cross Country Championships in Dublin. An inexperienced, barefoot, 18-year-old Gebremariam showed unexpected race savvy in his first major, international competition, patiently waiting to make his move for the victory. Back home, his barefooted triumph drew comparisons to countryman Abebe Bikila, who won the 1960 Rome Olympic marathon running without shoes.

“He kind of burst on the scene,” said Wetmore. “Then, he won with no shoes and that was his last race with no shoes. But the thing you could see in that first race [was his savvy]. Usually at that age, the gun goes and all the best guys go to the front. Watching the race unfold, the best guy outlasts the other guys. That’s a cross-country way of running. He was 30th after the first lap and I thought, ‘Is he sick?’ Usually younger guys don’t have that will to come through, but he had it at a very young age.”

Still, even with his earliest cross-country triumph, Gebremariam didn’t see the Olympics or marathon fame in his future. Instead, he focused on the difficult adjustment to running with shoes. At first, he struggled with the spiked shoes used in track and field competitions. It all felt so foreign. Now, Gebremariam can’t imagine running barefoot again, though he looks back fondly on a simpler running life.

“At 18, I didn’t think about the Olympics or a New York City marathon title,” said Gebremariam, who finished fourth in the 5,000 meters at the 2004 Athens Games and eighth in the 10,000 at the London Games. “When we saw those Olympic athletes in the media, on TV, it seemed very far away. Those people were coming from God, like Haile Gebrselassie and Derartu Tulu. I couldn’t imagine that. When I was coming from my village of Hawzien, there were no famous athletes from there.”

When the food comes to the table, Gebremariam explains that he cannot eat much with the Boston Marathon four days away, especially not injera which can upset his stomach. In Addis Ababa, he treats himself to traditional Ethiopian foot and injera only on Sundays when there is no second workout scheduled for the afternoon. Still, barely 24 hours removed from his Addis Ababa to Boston trip, Gebremariam cannot resist a taste of home.

He pinches a few vegetables between some injera, smiles sheepishly, and eats. It is the smallest of lapses in an otherwise very disciplined routine.

Gebremariam trains on the outskirts of Addis Ababa with a group of elite Ethiopians, including his wife. The Ethiopian capital sits an elevation of 7,500 feet, perfect for high-altitude marathon training. For his Boston buildup, Gebremariam trained twice a day except for Sundays and amassed a weekly total of 120 to 125 miles. He did one track session per week and one speed session on a forest path. His long runs last two hours, though he wouldn’t reveal the pace of those runs.

“His training has been good, but they play their cards close to their chest, even with me,” said Wetmore. “But Gebre’s a guy who, even if he’s a little bit undertrained, he’ll be very, very good. The key to him is to stay healthy. If he shows up on the line healthy and in good shape, he always a chance. And he’s healthy now.”

Gebremariam believes a top-three finish is possible, but notes that the 2013 Boston Marathon has “a lot of tough competition.” He does not have a specific strategy planned, but will react to the pace. If the race is fast from the start, he will follow. If it is slow, he will push the other runners. But he adds “this is not fixed.”

“Running the marathon is risky,” says Gebremariam. “But you have time to think about how far you can get in front of people and how you can increase your speed. I love the marathon. If you run a good marathon, you are revered.”

Gebremariam hopes that is the case when he finishes Boston.