Ethiopia's Girmay Birhanu and Aberu Zennebe win Ottawa Marathon – Ottawa Citizen

The races within the race were the stories behind the Ottawa Marathon on Sunday.

To begin with, there was a third consecutive Ethiopian sweep of the men’s and women’s titles in the 42.195-kilometre race, with Girmay Birhanu and Aberu Zennebe claiming the $30,000 U.S. top prizes from Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend organizers.

Neither approached record times, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. The elite competitors in both divisions pushed the pace well into the race, but paid for it near the end, particularly as they battled a steady headwind in the final kilometres along Sussex Drive, Colonel By Drive and the Queen Elizabeth Driveway.

“I’m very happy with the result, but I was hoping for 2:06 or 2:07,” said Birhanu, who actually crossed the finish line in two hours eight minutes 14 seconds, more than 40 seconds ahead of Kenya’s Philip Kangogo and another Ethiopian, Chele Dechasa, but 80 seconds off the 2014 record established by Yemane Tsegay.

The lead pack of 15 male runners dropped to a dozen between six and 15 kilometres, and it was down to nine when they reached the 23K mark in just under 69 minutes. Birhanu, three Kenyans and one of the paid pacesetters surged ahead at that point, but there was still a group of four approaching 32K.

Then Birhanu pushed the pace again. Trying to repeat his April victory in a marathon in South Korea, the 28-year-old was leading by about 13 seconds as he left New Edinburgh and turned back onto Sussex Drive, and he ran the rest of the way alone.

Ethiopia's Girmay Birhanu celebrates his marathon win at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, Sunday, May 24, 2015.

Ethiopia’s Girmay Birhanu celebrates his marathon win at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, Sunday, May 24, 2015.

Ashley Fraser /

Ottawa Citizen

“Yes, it was very difficult, not only because I was by myself, but (also) that it was very windy,” Birhanu said through an interpreter. “It was very challenging the last few kilometres.”

Vancouver’s Rob Watson led a string of three consecutive Canadian men between eighth and 10th place, although his time of 2:19:22 was well outside his target of 2:12:50, the national qualifying standard for the 2016 Rio Olympics. Toronto’s Lucas McAneney (2:19:32) was ninth, and Terrence Attema (2:19:32) of Smithville, Ont., was 10th.

“I wasn’t super comfortable running the pace I wanted to try, but I came out here with a goal that I was going to run at a certain pace and I was damned if I wasn’t going to do that,” Watson said. “I was going to run as hard as I could for as long as I could. That was about 28K, and then a monkey jumped on my back and I took it from French Canada all the way to the finish line. It was rough out there.”

Watson, who placed 10th overall in each of the previous two Ottawa marathons, said he would give himself some time off before regrouping and building for another run at the Olympic qualifying standard.

The qualifying mark of 2:15:00 for this year’s world championships at Beijing, and Watson, who placed 20th two years ago at Moscow, also missed that mark. However, Rachel Hannah was bubbling with optimism after surpassing the national women’s standard (2:35:00) for Beijing by 90 seconds and being the first Canadian female runner across the finish line on Sunday.

It was, after all, the first marathon ever for the 28-year-old dietitian from Toronto, and 10th place overall sounded pretty good.

“The hardest part was grabbing my (water) bottles, honestly. I missed the first one, I dropped another one,” Hannah said. “That was the toughest part just because I haven’t practised a lot with it.”

There’s still work to do if Hannah, who last year won the Canadian 10K road race championship at Toronto, hopes to qualify for the Olympics as well. That standard, set by Athletics Canada, is 2:29:50 for women.

“It’s just good to get it under my belt and build confidence,” added Hannah, who is expected to be back in Ottawa in about a month to defend her title in the Emilie’s Run 5K event. “We wanted to be a bit conservative because you never know what’s going to happen.”

Both Watson and Hannah received $5,000 as top Canadians.

Victoria’s Catrin Jones was second among Canadian women and 14th overall among female competitors in 2:42:52.

Zennebe’s victory was actually the sixth in a row in the Ottawa Marathon for Ethiopian women, following Merina Mohammed (2010), Kebebush Haile Lema (2011), Yeshi Esayias (2012-13) and Tigist Tufa, whose 2:24:30 was exactly a minute faster than the time Zennebe produced on Sunday.

Kenya’s Rebecca Chesir was second, 11 seconds behind Zennebe, and Ethiopia’s Abebech Afework was third in 2:25:53. Esayias, who returned to the Ottawa race after missing it last year, placed seventh in 2:27:14.

“I was uncertain (about winning), but obviously I was very motivated and I was fighting like I could win it,” Zennebe said through the interpreter. “If not first, at least one of the top three, and I was successful.”

Manny Rodrigues, elite athlete co-ordinator for race weekend, said the leading women were on pace for a finish in 2:22 or 2:23 at the mid-point on Sunday, but, as with the men, couldn’t extend that effort all the way to the finish.

The lack of record-breaking results was “realistic,” Rodrigues said. “They went out very aggressively. It looked like we were going to have a record to about 33-34K, but sometimes that aggressive running, they pay a toll for it and you just don’t get any records.”

Ottawa’s Matt Vierula won the men’s title in the half-marathon, also on Sunday, with a time of 1:10:39. Montreal’s Steven McElligott (1:12:47) was second, followed by Ottawa’s Adrian Tsang (1:13:20).

The women’s half-marathon champion was Quebec City’s Melissa Chartrand (1:21:51), who edged Toronto’s Angela Swift by three seconds and Ottawa’s Charlotte Dunlap by eight.

Aberu Zennebe was the first woman to finish the marathon at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, Sunday, May 24, 2015.

Aberu Zennebe was the first woman to finish the marathon at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, Sunday, May 24, 2015.

Ashley Fraser /

Ottawa Citizen

The crowd of runners kick off the first part of the marathon at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, Sunday, May 24, 2015.

The crowd of runners kick off the first part of the marathon at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, Sunday, May 24, 2015.

Ashley Fraser /

Ottawa Citizen


  • The crowd of runners kick off the first part of the marathon at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, Sunday, May 24, 2015.


    Ashley Fraser / Ottawa Citizen





  • The crowd of runners kick off the first part of the marathon at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, Sunday, May 24, 2015.


    Ashley Fraser / Ottawa Citizen





  • The crowd of runners kick off the first part of the marathon at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, Sunday, May 24, 2015.


    Ashley Fraser / Ottawa Citizen





  • The crowd of runners, led by the elite athletes, kick off the first part of the marathon at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, Sunday, May 24, 2015.


    Ashley Fraser / Ottawa Citizen





  • The crowd of runners, led by the elite athletes, kick off the first part of the marathon at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, Sunday, May 24, 2015.


    Ashley Fraser / Ottawa Citizen





  • The crowd of runners kick off the first part of the marathon at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, Sunday, May 24, 2015.


    Ashley Fraser / Ottawa Citizen





  • Devlin Taillon, 8, with Kenyan mentor David Kogei, who finished the 10K yesterday in third place at the end of the kids marathon at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, Sunday, May 24, 2015.


    Ashley Fraser / Ottawa Citizen





  • L-R: John Clermont and Owen McKinley-Young push to the finish line of the kids marathon at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, Sunday, May 24, 2015.


    Ashley Fraser / Ottawa Citizen





  • Nolan Kisser won the kids marathon at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, Sunday, May 24, 2015.


    Ashley Fraser / Ottawa Citizen





  • Devlin Taillon, 8, with Kenyan mentor David Kogei, who finished the 10K yesterday in third place at the end of the kids marathon at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, Sunday, May 24, 2015.


    Ashley Fraser / Ottawa Citizen





  • Devlin Taillon, 8, with Kenyan mentor David Kogei, who finished the 10K yesterday in third place at the end of the kids marathon at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, Sunday, May 24, 2015.


    Ashley Fraser / Ottawa Citizen





  • Abigail Adams during the kids marathon at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, Sunday, May 24, 2015.


    Ashley Fraser / Ottawa Citizen





  • Vanessa Ephraim pushed to finish the kids marathon at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, Sunday, May 24, 2015.


    Ashley Fraser / Ottawa Citizen





  • Charlie Legare pushing to the finish line during the kids marathon at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, Sunday, May 24, 2015.


    Ashley Fraser / Ottawa Citizen





  • Devlin Taillon, 8, with Kenyan mentor David Kogei, who finished the 10K yesterday in third place at the end of the kids marathon at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, Sunday, May 24, 2015.


    Ashley Fraser / Ottawa Citizen





  • Ethiopia’s Girmay Birhanu celebrates his marathon win at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, Sunday, May 24, 2015.


    Ashley Fraser / Ottawa Citizen





  • Ethiopia’s Girmay Birhanu hits the finish line of the marathon at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, Sunday, May 24, 2015.


    Ashley Fraser / Ottawa Citizen





  • Ethiopia’s Girmay Birhanu celebrates his marathon win at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, Sunday, May 24, 2015.


    Ashley Fraser / Ottawa Citizen





  • Ethiopia’s Girmay Birhanu celebrates his marathon win at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, Sunday, May 24, 2015.


    Ashley Fraser / Ottawa Citizen





  • Young girls push to finish the kids marathon at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, Sunday, May 24, 2015.


    Ashley Fraser / Ottawa Citizen





  • Ethiopia’s Girmay Birhanu celebrates his marathon win at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, Sunday, May 24, 2015.


    Ashley Fraser / Ottawa Citizen





  • Ethiopia’s Girmay Birhanu celebrates his marathon win at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, Sunday, May 24, 2015.


    Ashley Fraser / Ottawa Citizen





  • Ethiopia’s Girmay Birhanu celebrates his marathon win at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, Sunday, May 24, 2015.


    Ashley Fraser / Ottawa Citizen





  • Ethiopia’s Girmay Birhanu celebrates his marathon win at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, Sunday, May 24, 2015.


    Ashley Fraser / Ottawa Citizen





  • Ethiopia’s Girmay Birhanu celebrates his marathon win at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, Sunday, May 24, 2015.


    Ashley Fraser / Ottawa Citizen





  • Ethiopia’s Girmay Birhanu celebrates his marathon win at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, Sunday, May 24, 2015.


    Ashley Fraser / Ottawa Citizen





  • Rob Watson was the first Canadian man to finish the marathon at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, Sunday, May 24, 2015.


    Ashley Fraser / Ottawa Citizen





  • Rob Watson was the first Canadian man to finish the marathon at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, Sunday, May 24, 2015.


    Ashley Fraser / Ottawa Citizen





  • Rob Watson was the first Canadian man to finish the marathon at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, Sunday, May 24, 2015.


    Ashley Fraser / Ottawa Citizen





  • Rachid Kisri pushes to finish the marathon at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, Sunday, May 24, 2015.


    Ashley Fraser / Ottawa Citizen





  • Aberu Zennebe was the first woman to finish the marathon at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, Sunday, May 24, 2015.


    Ashley Fraser / Ottawa Citizen





  • Aberu Zennebe was the first woman to finish the marathon at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, Sunday, May 24, 2015.


    Ashley Fraser / Ottawa Citizen





  • Lucas McAneney was the second Canadian male to finish the marathon at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, Sunday, May 24, 2015.


    Ashley Fraser / Ottawa Citizen





  • Rob Watson was the first Canadian man to finish the marathon at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, Sunday, May 24, 2015.


    Ashley Fraser / Ottawa Citizen





  • Hannah Rachel celebrates her first marathon with a first Canadian woman title at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, Sunday, May 24, 2015.


    Ashley Fraser / Ottawa Citizen





  • Hannah Rachel celebrates her first marathon with a first Canadian woman title at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, Sunday, May 24, 2015.


    Ashley Fraser / Ottawa Citizen





  • Abebech Afework of Ethiopia is the third woman to finish the marathon at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, Sunday, May 24, 2015.


    Ashley Fraser / Ottawa Citizen





  • Jean-Mar Theriault gets a little help after finishing the marathon at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, Sunday, May 24, 2015.


    Ashley Fraser / Ottawa Citizen





  • Aberu Zennebe was the first woman to finish the marathon at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, Sunday, May 24, 2015.


    Ashley Fraser / Ottawa Citizen





  • Melina Alain from Montreal holds a sign, “Run like you stole something,” as she cheers on friends running the marathon at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, Sunday, May 24, 2015.


    Ashley Fraser / Ottawa Citizen





  • Fans and supporters cheer on the runners during the marathon at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, Sunday, May 24, 2015.


    Ashley Fraser / Ottawa Citizen





  • Fans and supporters cheer on the runners during the marathon at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, Sunday, May 24, 2015.


    Ashley Fraser / Ottawa Citizen





  • Ethiopia’s Girmay Birhanu celebrates his marathon win at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, Sunday, May 24, 2015.


    Ashley Fraser / Ottawa Citizen





  • Top males to finish the marathon. L-R: Chele Dechasa, Girmay Birhanu and Philip Kangogo at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, Sunday, May 24, 2015.


    Ashley Fraser / Ottawa Citizen





  • Fans and supporters cheer on the runners during the marathon at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, Sunday, May 24, 2015.


    Ashley Fraser / Ottawa Citizen





  • Ethiopia’s Girmay Birhanu wins the marathon at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, Sunday, May 24, 2015.


    Ashley Fraser / Ottawa Citizen





  • The crowd of runners kick off the first part of the marathon at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, Sunday, May 24, 2015.


    Ashley Fraser / Ottawa Citizen




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