Ethiopians Tulu, Gebrselassie star at NYC Marathon

Derartu Tulu, of Ethiopia, defending women's champion of the New York City Marathon,
Derartu Tulu, of Ethiopia, defending women's champion of the New York City Marathon, listens to a question during a news conference in New York, Thursday, Nov. 4, 2010. (AP Photo/Richard Drew) (Richard Drew, AP / November 4, 2010)

NEW YORK (AP) — Derartu Tulu smiled when somebody noted her history of winning gold medals stretches back even further than that of fellow Ethiopian Haile Gebrselassie.

“Thank you for having remembered me from all those years ago,” the reigning New York City Marathon champion said.

She was a bit of a forgotten woman at her sport’s biggest events before the victory in 2009 that surprised even Tulu. Now 38, she sees no reason she can’t defend her title at Sunday’s race — and keep competing at the highest level.

The 41st running of the NYC Marathon stars two Ethiopian greats renowned for their versatility and longevity. The 37-year-old Gebrselassie, the men’s world-record holder, is racing the 26.2-mile course through the city’s five boroughs for the first time.

The expected field of more than 43,000 runners includes Edison Pena, the Chilean miner rescued last month who jogged through the tunnels while trapped underground.

Tulu became the first black African woman to capture Olympic gold with her victory in the 10,000 meters in 1992, a year before Gebrselassie won a world championship at the same distance. The medals kept coming over the next dozen years, on the track, in cross country and at marathons — including another 10,000 gold at the 2000 Games.

But it had been quite some time since the running world saw Tulu at her best before the 2009 NYC Marathon. That was partly by choice: the birth of her youngest child 4 years ago. And partly not: leg injuries and a struggle to lose weight after the pregnancy.

Yet she never considered retirement. Tulu had faith she would compete for championships again. After all, she’d come all the way back from serious injuries before.

Elite men's runner Haile Gebrselassie, of Ethiopia
Elite men's runner Haile Gebrselassie, of Ethiopia, speaks to reporters during a news conference for the New York City Marathon, Friday, Nov. 5, 2010 in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

“You just have to have patience and treat it and trust that you will return,” Tulu said Thursday through a translator. “I always have hope that I will recover and return to my peak.”

She just didn’t expect it to happen so soon.

“It told me, ‘I guess I’m all right,'” Tulu said of last year’s title. “It was very meaningful for both myself and my family.”

The mother of six plans to race through at least the end of 2012 and hopes to make the London Games — two decades after her first Olympic triumph.

Tulu insists it’s not a problem to find time to train at an elite level while raising her children, who range in age from 4 to 16. Four are adopted, and she wants to expand her family again. With her mother and sister helping out, she prepared for this year’s NYC Marathon the same way she did before her 2009 victory.

“Until I stop running, I expect to be able to run at a high level,” Tulu said.

Her competition Sunday includes countrywoman Teyba Erkesso, the reigning Boston Marathon champ. Kenya’s Salina Kosgei, who won Boston in 2009, is seeking redemption in New York after tripping and falling early in last year’s race; she fought back to finish fifth.

The United States’ Shalane Flanagan, the 2008 Olympic bronze medalist in the 10,000, makes her marathon debut.

For the first time since Alberto Salazar won his third straight NYC Marathon in 1982, the defending men’s champion is an American: Meb Keflezighi has always run this course well, with three podium finishes.

Since it’s an even-numbered year, look out for Brazil’s Marilson Gomes dos Santos, who won in 2006 and ’08. Kenya’s Abel Kirui and Emmanuel Mutai finished one-two at last year’s world championships, and countryman James Kwambai holds one of the best marathon times ever.

The top mark belongs to Gebrselassie: 2 hours, 3 minutes, 59 seconds, set in Berlin in 2008. He focused on flat, fast courses in recent years, striving to keep lowering the record while he was still young enough.

The hilly New York course, with no “rabbit” to set the pace, offers a different challenge.

“It’s not the one you run for time,” Gebrselassie said. “It’s the one you run to win.”

He’s not concerned about the hills — Ethiopia is plenty hilly. The test will be the tactics of racing with a pack of other elite runners. He’ll need to excel at that in the 2012 Olympics.

“I think that coming Sunday, it will be my big lesson,” Gebrselassie said.

His friend and rival Paul Tergat of Kenya, the 2005 NYC Marathon champ, introduced Gebrselassie at a news conference Friday. Tergat told Gebrselassie, “There is no any other bigger race in the world than competing here in New York.”

“He’s a man that has achieved everything,” Tergat said. “And I think what is missing is New York. I believe that what we are going to see on Sunday probably will be very special.”