by Andy Martino
When Tesfaye Jifar sits still, his mind drifts to dark places. So he prefers to remain in motion. It’s easier not to think about any of it: The elite athletic career that accelerated with uncommon speed, and then ended almost as quickly. The livery cab that he now drives throughout Boston, sometimes for 16 hours a day or more. The tense situation back home in Ethiopia, where the government — trying to stifle dissent in the city where Jifar’s wife and children still live — declared a state of emergency last month. And most of all, the loneliness.
Sitting in the driver’s seat of his 2007 Lincoln Town Car, Jifar sighs, adjusts his glasses and runs a hand through his close-cropped, salt-and-pepper hair. It’s only noon on this October Tuesday, but he has already been driving for more than eight hours. “When I go home,” he says of the bedroom in Cambridge, Mass., where he sleeps in his older brother’s house, “my family, they are not with me. I don’t like to worry, so I prefer to work. When I am here, I feel free. When I go home, I feel bad. For the country, for my family, missing them.” He stops for a moment and sighs again. “Everything.”
We stop at a light, and the car stalls. Jifar turns the key, and the engine coughs before finally revving again. For a moment, it seems like the beginning of another crisis, one he can barely afford, but we are soon back in motion.
I’d met Jifar four months earlier, in this very car, while on assignment in Boston. A few minutes into a ride to Logan Airport, he asked where I was from. “New York,” I told him.
“Do you know about the New York City Marathon?” he said, handing me his smartphone, which showed a photo of a man crossing the finish line with arms raised in the air. I looked at him, then at the picture, then back at him.
“Wait, you won the Marathon?” I rubbed my eyes and saw his face smiling back at me in the rearview mirror. Same lean body as the runner in the picture. Same meticulously trimmed moustache. Same right eye, glassy and half-closed.
“Yes,” he said, pulling up his Wikipedia page on his phone, quickly and without compromising his focus on the road, as if he has done this a thousand times. He passed it back to me.
Sure enough, there he was. The photo clearly was of the same man, and the entry revealed that Jifar was an Ethiopian long-distance runner who was born on April 23, 1976. I scanned the list of his races and times, which end abruptly in 2005, and saw that the man behind the wheel had indeed attained superlative status in Manhattan. Jifar had set a course record in the 2001 Marathon, a race that carried special significance for a still-grieving city, coming less than two months removed from the trauma of 9/11. He recounted some memories of that morning and its aftermath, which included meeting Mayor Giuliani, winning a car for his wife and even taping a segment with David Letterman.
Now, a decade and a half later, he is a driving a cab in Boston.
We don’t often think much about what happens to the athletes who enjoy brief glory but must, eventually, figure out what to do for the rest of their lives. And we certainly don’t expect to encounter one of those champions driving us to Logan Airport for a $35 flat rate, worried for his children and the very survival of his country.
Jifar is soft-spoken and carries himself with a businesslike demeanor that masks the sense of urgency which motivates his every waking moment. His children are growing up, and each minute they are apart is another in which he cannot be at peace. “When you live with your kids, your wife, you feel successful,” Jifar says, gazing ahead at the road. “But when your family is not with you…” He does not finish the thought, but I get his drift.
He hasn’t seen his wife, Etenesh Kumesha, 37, and their children — Aedom, 20, Abenezer, 10, and Aefrata, 8, since 2012, when she urged him to join his older brother Terefe in Boston, in order to seek a better life, and send for them as soon as possible. They have been waiting for the government to process their visa applications so that they can join Jifar in Boston. Aefrata, the youngest, cries every day, sometimes more than once, when her daddy calls her on IMO, a Skype-like app for video chats.
Growing up in a family of 10 children in an area called Lencha, near the central Ethiopian highland town of Ambo, Jifar never imagined any of this. Not the glory in New York City, nor the self-imposed exile from his family that would follow. He spent a quiet childhood attending school and helping on the farm that had been in his family for generations. He gave no thought to running. In Ambo, children started working as early as possible.
“As soon as you had the energy, you started helping,” says Terefe, in whose house Tesfaye shares a room with his younger brother Habte. Terefe, who emigrated to Boston in the 1990s and also drives a livery cab, describes the family as middle-class farmers. “We helped our parents before school, after school. We farmed crops. We grew wheat, barley, corn, beans. We had cows, horses, sheep.”
They also had an ox, which gored Tesfaye when he was 14. He had been walking behind the animal when it suddenly turned around, its horn gouging Tesfaye’s right eye and permanently blinding it.
“As a marathon runner, you need great peripheral vision,” says David Monti, who, as the recruiter of professional athletes for New York Road Runners, was responsible for inviting Jifar to the 2001 race. “And Tesfaye would only have vision out of one eye, which would put him at a great disadvantage. That’s very unusual.”
Adds Mary Wittenberg, the former president and CEO of New York Road Runners: “Have you ever tried to run with an eye covered up for any reason? It’s crazy. I have always been especially amazed by Tesfaye Jifar for this reason, and he shrugs it off. Maybe he is used to it, but for most of us mortals it would be an added challenge. And when you’re world class at that level, every added challenge can be significant.”
It was that exquisite athleticism that enabled Jifar to succeed despite such a late start. He was already 20 years old and married when he traveled to the capital city of Addis Ababa, about 170 miles from Ambo, in 1996 to watch Habte compete in a 10,000-meter race, which he won. Observing Habte succeed among such accomplished runners, Tesfaye suspected that he might possess comparable skills and soon began training with his brother. He would later learn that running could bring additional income for his family, but the prospect of glory tempted him first. “I wasn’t thinking about money yet,” he says. “Just about winning.”
Jifar undertook a rigorous training program, running three times a day — 30 kilometers (approximately 18 miles) every morning, a light midday jog, and another several miles in the late afternoon. Ethiopians and especially Kenyans have dominated international distance running over the past five decades, and researchers have explored every possible factor — from genetic makeup and diet to the region’s high altitude — in trying to explain their advantage. Jifar cites the latter reason. “If you train in that high altitude, then you come to this type of weather, it’s very easy,” he says.
Jifar made a fast ascension into the international ranks, finishing second in his first marathon, in Amsterdam in 1999, and winning bronze medals at the IAAF World Half-Marathon Championships in both 1999 and 2000. His talent caught the attention of Global Sports Communication, a Dutch company that manages athletes, and in 2001, GSC recommended Jifar to the New York Road Runners. “He had no pedigree, and no known results before 1999,” Monti says. “For him to run 2:06:49 out of the box in 1999 (in Amsterdam) — that’s really quite something.”
While training for the 2001 Marathon, Jifar expected that Japhet Kosgei, a Kenyan who had already won several marathons, would take this race, though he gave himself a chance to finish second. When Etenesh drove Tesfaye to the airport in Addis Ababa, she playfully asked him what he would do for her if he won. He blurted, “I’ll give you a brand new car.”
Every year, roughly 100 professional runners — including men, women and wheelchair athletes — race in the New York City Marathon, the largest in the world, with more than 50,000 annual participants. The race is one of eight — along with Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin and Chicago, the biennial IAAF World Championships, and the Olympics — that comprise the World Marathon Majors.
When he landed at JFK on the Thursday before the race, Jifar had been so immersed in training that he did not even know about the attacks on the World Trade Center. Nor was he aware of the anxiety surrounding the event, which officials initially thought might be canceled altogether. But according to Wittenberg, Mayor Rudy Giuliani called the New York Road Runners a few days after 9/11, telling them to continue planning for the race. “This event is going to bring the city back,” he told them. “It’s going on.”
As the runners gathered in front of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge on the morning of Nov. 4, the dominant emotion was anxiety. “You sensed that runners were nervous,” Wittenberg says. “(Nearly everyone) felt incredibly moved, and had a bit of trepidation as they stood on that bridge that day. People hadn’t yet been out on the streets together in this fashion.”
Jifar hung near the front of the pack from the beginning of the race, and sensed that he would have a strong day. Then, as he reached the route’s halfway point on the Pulaski Bridge, which connects Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and Long Island City, Queens, he found inside himself another gear, and realized he had a chance to win.
By the 20th mile, he was among the top three, neck-and-neck with Kosgei and his fellow Kenyan Rodgers Ropp, who would win the following year. The trio were well ahead of all other runners, and Jifar now knew that one of them would claim victory. “I was calculating,” he says. “I was looking at the miles, and the other runners. You pace yourself by watching the other runners.”
“As a marathon runner, you need great peripheral vision. And Tesfaye only has vision in one eye, which puts him at a great disadvantage.”
A significant break came in the 21st mile, when Kosgei broke for water. “When he left to take the water, I was flying,” Jifar says. “I saw him, and when he went to the water, I — ” he claps, then zooms his right hand forward. “I left.
“When you’re leading, your brain is just: First place,” he continues, smiling and nearly breaking into a chuckle. “I’m looking back. I could see him. Oh, he was far!”
Jifar legged it home in a full sprint over the final five miles. When he crossed the finish line, he fell to his knees and kissed the ground, having set a new course record of 2:07:43 — a mark that would stand until 2011. Terefe, standing nearby, jumped in the air and screamed.
Over the next 24 hours, race officials whisked Jifar around town for meetings and events that happened so quickly that he can barely remember them: A news conference. A meet-and-greet with Giuliani. A brief taping with Letterman. Then, a quiet drive back to Boston with Terefe, and it was over.
Recollecting that whirlwind weekend from the lobby of the Courtyard Marriott in Copley Square, where he spends much of the day making pickups for airport runs, Jifar is full of joy. But the mood abruptly darkens when I ask what he was thinking when he crossed the finish line. How did it feel to win in New York?
Tesfaye grows quiet and stares into the distance. “Don’t remind me,” he says.