‘Only God knows when we can meet,’ says marathon runner Gotytom Gebreslase, cut off from her parents amid conflict in Ethiopia
It’s almost a year since marathon runner Gotytom Gebreslase last spoke to her parents over the phone, a detachment she feels most strongly during races.
Gebreslase would usually speak with her family before and after she competes, but a phone and internet shutdown back home in Ethiopia made it impossible to do so at this year’s World Athletics Championships.
It meant that when she crossed the finish line to claim victory in the marathon — raising her arms in the air, then sinking to her knees as relief and elation poured from her body — the 27-year-old was gripped by conflicting emotions.
“I wish I could have enjoyed my happiness with them,” she tells CNN Sport. “That would have been a second joy for me.”
That race in Eugene, Oregon was the greatest achievement in Gebreslase’s running career to date — her first world championship title and a marathon personal best of two hours, 18 minutes and 11 seconds.
But for all the happiness she felt at her performance, she couldn’t help but think of her parents, caught in the middle of military hostilities near their home in northern Ethiopia.
The long-standing internet and phone blackout in the country’s Tigray region — implemented by the Ethiopian government amid fighting between government and Tigrayan forces — means Gebreslase’s contact with her parents is sporadic and infrequent.
“Only God knows when we can meet,” she says. “My wish is to meet them soon — that would make me happy.”
However, the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) have agreed to permanently cease hostilities — a significant step toward ending a war that has seen thousands of people killed, millions displaced, and millions more left in urgent need of food assistance.
The two sides said on Wednesday evening that they would “permanently silence the guns and end the two years of conflict in northern Ethiopia” in a joint statement published after delegates shook hands.
Some reassurance over her parents’ safety arrived following Gebreslase’s victory at the world championships in July, when she came across a TV report featuring an interview with her mother.
In the report, Gebreslase’s mother says she cried after watching her daughter’s post-race interview. She adds that the pair only communicate via recorded voice messages and that she hopes for peace in order to see her children again soon.
“When I saw that video, it really made me calm,” says Gebreslase, who viewed her mother as a role model growing up.
“When you see something like that, hearing them support me, that helps calm you because it’s encouraging — the fact that I saw them and didn’t know what kind of situation they were facing.”
Gebreslase lives and trains around the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, where her sister is a constant source of support for her running career.
“She’s a friend and a sister, she does a lot for me,” she says. “She helps me not think about the fact that my parents are not next to me — it’s been a big encouragement.”
On Sunday, Gebreslase will race in the New York City Marathon, her fourth major marathon in two years having taken victory in Berlin last year.
The high-quality women’s field includes Israel’s Lonah Chemtai Salpeter, who finished third behind Gebreslase at the world championships, as well as the Kenyan duo of Peres Jepchirchir, last year’s Olympic champion, and Hellen Obiri, the two-time Olympic silver medalist making her marathon debut.
It’s Gebreslase, though, who enters the race as the top-ranked runner in the world over 26.2 miles.
“The result I got in the world championships built my confidence,” she says. “It made me want to train more to get better results [and] it changed my thinking.”
Ethiopia has a long history of producing some of the world’s best distance runners, ever since a barefooted Abebe Bikila claimed gold in the men’s marathon at the 1960 Rome Olympics.
At 2,355 meters, Addis Ababa is one of the highest capital cities in the world; it’s altitude, along with the wooded trails surrounding the city, make it an ideal location for producing the world’s best endurance athletes.
This year, Ethiopians have enjoyed success in major marathon races, with Yalemzerf Yehualaw winning in London last month — even after tripping and falling with six miles to go — and Tigist Assefa running the fourth fastest women’s time ever as she took victory in Berlin in September.
On the men’s side, Tamirat Tola won the world championship title alongside Gebreslase to complete an Ethiopian double in Eugene.
The difficult, undulating course in New York City means fast times are almost certainly out of the question on Sunday, but a victory in a competitive field would cement Gebreslase’s status at the top of the sport.
According to her mother, Gebreslase first took up athletics at school, where she was ridiculed for wearing shorts and often told that sports were only meant for boys.
But with the unwavering support of her family, she persevered.
“When I started running, [my parents] didn’t discourage me, they were encouraging me — especially my mom,” says Gebreslase.
“She is very strong and loves sports. She was my mom and my coach at times, helping me get to this stage.”
The thought of her parents will be spurring her on at this weekend’s race — a chance to repay them for everything they have invested in her running career.
“Because they had so much influence on me,” says Gebreslase, “I always wish to make them proud.”
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