Catholic Charities gave Retta Feyissa a job and food stamps, set him up with English classes, and helped him find an apartment when the Ethiopian marathoner arrived in Washington two years ago. On Sunday, he plans to give back.
Feyissa, 27, wears a green, yellow and red Ethiopian marathon team windbreaker on his training runs, but he will wear a Catholic Charities jersey when he toes the line at the start of the 27th Marine Corps Marathon.
The Marine Corps Marathon is the largest 26.2-mile race in the country that does not offer prize money, and Feyissa gave up a chance to earn a decent paycheck in the Columbus (Ohio) Marathon last week to run in his adopted home town.
"They give me everything to help me," said Feyissa, who sought political asylum two years ago because of unrest in his native country and discrimination toward his Oromo ethnic group. "That's why I run for the Catholic Church and run the Marine Corps Marathon."
He does not just plan to run for fun, either. That is not why he wakes up every morning at 5 a.m. to train, long before he takes a 45-minute bus ride to his job at the Morrison-Clark Inn in Northwest Washington or heads off to English classes.
He plans to win.
Once a week he runs a 26-mile course around his apartment in the Brightwood neighborhood of northwest Washington and Rock Creek Park, but mostly he does 17 to 18 miles a day, with a one-day break every week. Feyissa's roommate and fellow Ethiopian, Tesffaye Amenu, will run as well, but he injured his leg in training and does not expect to challenge the leaders.
Feyissa does. He finished second at the inaugural Washington D.C. Marathon in March with a time of 2 hours 24 minutes 54 seconds and expects to run 2:20 on Sunday.
"I can win because I know my times and my training [are] good," says Feyissa, who left his wife and two children in Ethiopia when he emigrated to the United States two years ago. "I think I can win."
Farley Simon, a 46-year-old retired Marine, won last year's race in 2:28:28, the slowest winning time in the history of the race. Simon will not return, and Feyissa likely will be challenged by a group of military competitors that includes a former champion, as well as several civilians.
Cincinnati's John Sence, 32, does not expect to approach his personal record -- the 2:15:39 he ran at Chicago in 1998 -- but said he has recovered from several injuries and hopes to break 2:20. Christopher Juarez, 32, from Las Vegas, will run for the Air Force Marathon Team and should challenge the leaders, as should Patrick Reed, 33, from Loma Linda, Calif.
Mark Croasdale, 37, the 1999 champion and a corporal in the British Royal Navy, returns, and Paul Zimmerman, a 41-year-old from Cedar Creek, Tex., who led last year's race until Mile 23, may compete as well. However, Zimmerman's wife, last year's champion, Lori Stich Zimmerman, pulled out earlier this week because of the flu, and Zimmerman told the Marines he may opt out, too.
Stich Zimmerman's departure leaves the women's field wide open; it could be decided among Florida native Lisa Dorfman, Chile's Tatiana Arriagada Bustos, New Jersey's Robyn Piccinic, New York's Denise Mary Ramirez and Arlington resident Elizabeth Scanlon. Scanlon, 32, finished third in the Army Ten-Miler last Sunday.
Croasdale also gives the British Royal Navy/Royal Marines an edge in the Challenge Cup, an interesting subplot to the race. The British have won the past four men's Challenge Cups and the last three women's Challenge Cups, which are awarded to the team with the top aggregate time among its best runners.
Among the Marines' top runners, Maj. Alex Hetherington, 35, captains the team and is looking for a top-five finish overall, as is Staff Sgt. Rob Adams, 32, from Quantico.
"The Challenge Cup is the focus of the race for me," said Hetherington, who is from San Clemente, Calif. "But at the same time I am running to do as well as I can."
Hetherington, who has run the Marine Corps Marathon eight times, said he is in as good a shape as he has ever been. Before last year's race, in which he logged his worst finish (15th overall), he had to do a significant portion of his training while he was deployed aboard a helicopter assault ship.
He has not had the limitations of a ship to stunt his training this year. He has been in non-active duty at Camp Pendleton for several months, but before that he was stationed for several weeks at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. He still found 45 minutes every day to train.
"There was one little part of the airfield we could run on," Hetherington said. "There were a lot of trucks going by and it was super dusty, and you had to have your sidearm with you at all times, so I had to run with my pistol."