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.
A humdrum second act far from the spotlight is not uncommon for retired marathon champs. “Winning the New York City Marathon certainly is a big financial payoff, but a lifetime is a long time, especially with families,” she says. “Many athletes dedicate most of their lives to training, and miss whole decades of building other careers. So it is harder for them to get a job (afterward), when they would have benefitted from having 10 to 20 years working, which they spent running.”
The prize money for winning the New York City Marathon in 2001 was $80,000, plus an additional $50,000 for a time bonus, awarded for setting the course record. Pontiac, a race sponsor, also offered a 2002 Grand Am, or $25,000 in cash. In a country whose annual per-capita income is $590, that’s a significant haul. Jifar purchased two houses in Addis Ababa, and continued to train full-time, knowing he would not have to work for a while.
“The number-one driving force behind Kenyan and Ethiopian athletics is not just the talent level, which is significant, but the awards that you can win,” Monti says. “They are so outsized compared to the average earnings and the cost of living there.”
Several months after the race, Monti received a photo from Jifar that remains his warmest memory of that time. “When athletes win cars, they’re often given the choice between the car and an equivalent cash value,” he says. “I tried to talk him out of taking the car. ‘Take the cash.’ But he wouldn’t change his mind. He had promised his wife a gold car.”
Monti arranged for the car to be shipped in a container to Ethiopia. Some two months later, Jifar’s New York City Marathon prize finally arrived. “He sent me a photo of him leaning against that car,” Monti says. “And he was proud as could be.” Etenesh, his wife, still drives the Grand Am, and lives in a home in Addis Ababa that Tesfaye bought with his winnings.
Jifar returned to New York as the reigning champion in 2002. But suffering from a gastrointestinal illness, he became violently ill just over halfway through the race and was forced to withdraw. He finished ninth in the London Marathon that year, and fifth in the Enschede Marathon in the Netherlands in 2005. That year, while training in Ethiopia, he tore his Achilles tendon — and just like that, his lucrative career as an elite athlete was over. He was 29.
“The peak (for a marathon runner) is around 30, 31, 32, 33 — those are the best years,” Monti says. “By then you have all the experience, (along with) years and years of training. So it does seem that Tesfaye missed out.”
In the years following his Achilles injury, Jifar sold used cars and flipped properties in Addis Ababa — “just hustling,” as he puts it, trying to stretch the windfall that he had earned in New York. In 2006, he applied for and obtained an O-1 visa, “for the individual who possesses extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics,” as the website for the Department of Homeland Security puts it. The visa enabled Jifar to obtain his green card soon after, which he utilized to return to the U.S. roughly once a year to earn money driving in Boston.
Then, in 2011, he began experiencing what he calls “slowed-down vision” in his left eye, the good one. He believes that this was a delayed effect from an accident in a 2001 race in Edmonton, Alberta, when he fell and hit his head on the pavement. Fearing he would become blind in both eyes, and believing that the medical care at home was inadequate, he decided in 2012 to fly to Boston for surgery to remove scar tissue from his left retina. Before he left, Etanesh told him to remain in the U.S., and work on reuniting the family — which his green card entitles him to do — in Cambridge’s sizable Ethiopian community.
Soon after his eye surgery in 2012, Jifar initiated the steps to bring over his family members. “We have petitioned for them, and it is in the process,” says Derege Demissie, an Ethiopian-born attorney in Cambridge who is working with Jifar. He estimates that process might take another six months, but it is difficult to say with any certainty when the family will be together.
The approval process is complex and time-consuming. Jifar’s wife and children have already been subjected to DNA testing to prove they are related. They passed this hurdle successfully about a year ago but had to wait months for the results. The family has also been interviewed twice at the American Embassy in Ethiopia, as officials made sure that they were, in fact, Jifar’s wife and children (as if the DNA evidence left any doubt), had no criminal record, and did not carry any communicable diseases. They are now waiting for what they hope will be one final interview.
Meanwhile, tensions back home are escalating at a much faster pace. For the past quarter century, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front has represented a small fraction of the population. Jifar and his family are Oromo, a group that comprises about 40% of the population. The Oromo managed an uneasy peace with the government for many years, but tensions escalated in November 2015, when the EPRDF began annexing land in Oromo territories. In the 12 months since, protests spread through the country, and human rights groups estimate that more than 500 people have died while fighting government security forces.
“Everyone is concerned about what is happening,” Demissie says. “A lot of people have family members back home, and then they hear daily reports of demonstrations, crackdowns by the government, a number of people getting arrested. People who come from Ethiopia feel like they left a piece of them back home, and are feeling distressed.”
The situation leapt into the international consciousness this summer, when marathoner Feyisa Lilesa, an Oromo, won the silver medal at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Upon crossing the finish line, Lilesa crossed his arms into an “X,” a popular gesture of protest against the Ethiopian government. He seemed to know that the gesture would make him a marked man at home.
“Everyone hears daily reports of demonstrations, crackdowns by the government, and arrests. People who come from Ethiopia feel like they left a piece of them back home, and are feeling distressed.”
“If I go back to Ethiopia, maybe they will kill me,” Lilesa said in a post-race news conference. “If not kill me, they will put me in prison.”
Lilesa remains in the United States, and has said that he fears for his family’s safety in Ethiopia because of his demonstration. Jifar, who knew Lilesa in Ethiopia but has not been in touch with him in recent years, is taking a different approach. “I don’t want to talk about politics,” he tells me several times, firmly, making clear that he will never join his fellow distance runner in waging a public protest. Reading Lilesa’s comments, one can understand why.
During the time I spent in Boston with Jifar in October, the situation in Ethiopia intensified. The night before I arrived, the government had declared a state of emergency, granting itself broader powers to deal with protesters. Since then, state media has reported the arrest or detention of more than 1,600 dissidents, and the government has banned use of Facebook and other social-media platforms, which have been useful in organizing uprisings in other countries.
Jifar’s stress seemed to grow with news of every new development. Whenever I would ask about it, he’d sigh, rub his eyes, and grow increasingly silent.
“Whether you are for or against the government, I don’t think that you take comfort when you hear what’s happening,” Demissie says. “It’s equally distressing to everyone.”
On Oct. 12, the morning that Jifar drove me to Logan Airport again for the end of our visit, The Guardian published an editorial about Ethiopia headlined “The Tyrannical Government Must Go.” Jifar would would only say that he speaks with his wife four or five times a day, and the family remains safe, for now. Others in Cambridge mentioned the 2011 revolution in Libya as a potential model for their country, telling me that any change — even the sort that has persisted in that country since the overthrow of dictator Muammar Gaddafi — seemed preferable to the status quo.
After helping me remove my luggage from the trunk at Logan — not far from the spot where I first learned of this cabbie’s brief but glorious past as an athlete — Jifar shook my hand and looked me dead in the eye. “Are you going to see your son today?”
I nodded. There again was that faraway look. “I am sure you miss him,” he said. Then he got back into the car, closed the door and drove away. He’d made his first pickup at 4 a.m., and would be driving until after dark. Anything to remain in motion, and banish those haunted thoughts.
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