Gurmu's 'good' performance puts smile on her face

On a perfect fall day, the 34th Marine Corps Marathon winds through the metro area's streets.
By Matt McFarland
Monday, October 26, 2009

Of the thousands of runners who crossed the finish line at the Marine Corps Marathon after pushing their bodies through 26.2 miles, Muliye Gurmu may have been the only one who felt well enough to smile.

She was sprinting, too. Her pace in the final stretch was so quick that it caught race organizers off guard, as they barely had time to get into position with the tape for Gurmu to break as she finished in 2 hours 49 minutes 48 seconds, edging a reformed couch potato by 25 seconds.

Last year's first woman to finish, Cate Fenster, had pain-induced tears pouring down her face as she finished. Gurmu, this year's first woman, could only smile.

"It was an easy race," said Gurmu's coach, Sue Bozgoz. "The pace was slow. She was coasting."

Gurmu, 25, a native of Ethiopia, usually only competes in races with cash prizes, but entered Sunday's race as a favor to Bozgoz, who was in the Army. Gurmu, who now trains in Silver Spring, speaks little English, but summed up her day this way: "It was good."

Gurmu, 25, ran alongside or on the heels of the top female the first 26 miles. At Mile 23, 42-year-old Jaymee Marty pulled up alongside Gurmu. Marty had never even run a 5K at age 25, and didn't play sports in high school or college.

"I was basically a couch potato," said Marty, an Air Force major who lives in Sacramento.

Her first race came five years ago when she heard her older brother was entering a 5K.

"It was more a dare or challenge. If my brother can do it, I can do it," Marty said.

After running a 25:56 in the 5K, she followed her brother into a half-marathon. As her training runs reached six or seven miles, the endorphins kicked in and Marty fell in love with distance running.

Sunday morning was her third marathon this year. She competed last year (2:57:04) but had to walk the final stretch. With that in mind, she started Sunday's race at an easy pace.

"I just wanted to race it by feel. I knew there were a lot of hills early," Marty said.

Her goal was to break the master's course record and she wore laminated cheat sheets around her wrists that listed the mile times she would have to run. But around Mile 19, Marty learned she might accomplish something even bigger.

"People were yelling at me that the lead women were 60 seconds ahead, 45 seconds ahead," Marty said. On an overpass in Crystal City she passed them.

Then Gurmu made a savvy move, tucking in just behind Marty to shield herself from the wind. It was a two-woman race.

Marty intentionally slowed to about a 6:40 pace, but Gurmu wouldn't pass her. At Mile 26, Gurmu made her move and sprinted to the finish. While Marty couldn't keep up, finishing in 2:50:13, she did break the masters' record.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company