I came of age under a communist military regime in Ethiopia. I could have become a farmer like my father or a soldier like many of my friends. Instead, I became a long-distance runner. And on Sept. 28 in Berlin, I broke my previous marathon record, finishing in 2:03:59—the fastest time in history.
Audacity is not always a valued trait in the Ethiopian countryside where I grew up. You cannot afford to take risks when you are feeding 10 children from a 12-acre plot of land as my father did. And when you live in a dictatorship, any disdain for authority can be taken as a sign of treasonous intent. Yet in spite of my father's and the regime's best efforts to subdue me, I remained headstrong, which is why as a young man I ran two races I never should have.
When I was 15, my high school needed a runner for the 1,500-meter race at a county track meet, so I volunteered—and was ridiculed. At that time, I was smaller than most kids my own age, and the older boys towered above me. The spectators laughed when I burst onto the sand track in a sprint. I could hear them jeering from the metal bleachers, saying, "You'll never make it like that!" They stopped laughing when I pulled farther and farther ahead, however. And they cheered and lifted me in the air when I won.
At 16, I was invited to represent my county in the nationals in Addis Ababa. I'd never even seen a multistory building before. I was still staring at the skyline when my coach returned from the stadium's office, frowning. It turned out my race had been canceled. They'd tried to call ahead to warn us, but back then the only reliable form of communication was face-to-face. I decided that I could not return to my village without competing, however, so I asked my coach if I could enter the marathon. He refused. I was too young, he said, and I had not trained for it. He only changed his mind when I began to cry.
As the race began, I could not see past the runners in front of me. I had no clue how to pace myself and I ran in spurts. By the last five miles, my locally made shoes, made of flimsy rubber and canvas, were coming apart. The fabric between the soles and my feet had worn away and the heat from the sun-baked pavement was beginning to burn. An older, more experienced runner from my village sailed past me on the final stretch, whispering encouragement; as he disappeared into the pack, I understood the importance of leaving something for last.
I would have quit—I wanted to quit—but I kept thinking of my classmates who had joined the Army, their grueling training and their willingness to die. Under such a regime, everything, even homework or plowing a field, became part of an ongoing war—even in a time of peace. I too would make a sacrifice, I thought, though not for the tyrants that ran the country, but for my community.
And I made it. Though just 16, I finished the race in 2 hours and 48 minutes, putting me among the top 100 runners. Crossing the finish line, someone steadied me before I collapsed. As I drank some water, I noticed the blood. The exposed rubber soles had torn through the blisters on my feet. I stayed an extra day in Addis Ababa because the pain was too excruciating to walk to the bus stop.
I swore I would never run again, but a week later I was standing in front of the regional president and an Army colonel who were reminding the athletes of our patriotic obligation to persevere. Though perhaps not in the intended way, the meeting inspired me to keep running. Sometimes we persevere in spite of what we're made to suffer and sometimes because of it.
That first marathon was the most painful competition of my career, and I often think back to it as I run today. Since then I have been world champion four times and have twice won the Olympic 10,000-meter race. In the past four years I have focused my energy increasingly on the marathon, a race that often goes to the mature athlete. Looking back at my fortunate career, I hope I have saved the best for last.