If Belay Tilahun was good enough to win the country’s most prestigious half marathon, why wasn’t he listed in the elite field?
Ever since the inaugural event in 2006, the NYC Half has established itself as the most prestigious annual half marathon in the country. The list of past winners includes distance running titans like Paula Radcliffe, Wilson Kipsang, and Mo Farah. The event record is held by none other than Haile Gebrselassie, who has been called the greatest distance runner of all time.
Joining this exclusive club is Belay Tilahun, the 24-year-old Ethiopian who won the 2019 NYC Half last Sunday. Remarkably, Tilahun was competing for a local club called the West Side Runners (WSX) and was not in the elite field. (In addition to race-day perks like personalized bibs, transportation to the start, a separate warm-up area and bag check, elite runners typically do not have to pay a race entry fee.) The upset created a mildly awkward situation for the New York Road Runners (NYRR) organization, which had spent considerable time and money to lure top professional talent to their flagship winter event, only to have some seemingly random dude wearing bib number 1163 break the tape. Among others, Tilahun beat a field that included Olympic 5,000-meter silver medalist Paul Chelimo, who was making his half marathon debut.
“I was feeling quite cold at the beginning, but as I was warming up [in the race], I began to feel better,” Tilahun said, via translator, in an interview after the race. “After about 15 kilometers, I was confident that I could win.”
“As far as we can remember, this is the first time an athlete who wasn’t in the pro field won a major NYRR event,” NYRR senior vice president Chris Weiller, who also heads up the organization’s professional athlete division, told me over the phone. He added that, while NYRR always tries to ensure that all runners who have a chance at winning are given elite athlete status, the fact the Tilahun had slipped under the radar certainly made for a good story: “Would it have been more compelling if he was in the pro field and had a name bib on and everyone knew him? Probably not. You wouldn’t be writing about him,” Weiller said.
To some extent, Tilahun’s unexpected triumph is reminiscent of the women’s race in last year’s Boston Marathon. On that day, cataclysmic conditions and a high dropout rate among pros resulted in several amateurs finishing in the top 15 by chip time, which set off debates about whether these women should retroactively be made eligible for prize money. (The B.A.A. eventually decided that the answer was yes. In response to last year’s kerfuffle, this year, the women’s elite field in Boston has been expanded to accept any athlete who has run the Olympic Trials qualifying standard of 2:45:00.)
Since the professional men’s race at the NYC Half doesn’t have a separate start, there was never any doubt that Tilahun would be able to collect the first-place purse of $20,000. But his win prompts another question: if Tilahun was good enough to win one of the world’s most competitive half marathons, why wasn’t he in the pro field to begin with?
“It doesn’t happen very often in big races that somebody comes from nowhere and wins,” says longtime WSX president Bill Staab, who had entered Tilahun in the NYC Half last November and paid the standard race entry fee of $130. Staab, who is a 79-year-old retired steel importer, has been supporting WSX runners who can’t afford to cover the increasingly steep race entry costs themselves for decades. In an email, Staab claims that, since he became president of the club in 1978, he has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on NYRR race and membership fees for his athletes. (He emphasizes that he is not rich, and just living off his pension and social security.) That kind of generosity might sound extreme, but Staab has also been intermittently sharing his modest Manhattan apartment with several of his runners, rent-free, for years. He is not an agent or a coach, and has said that he doesn’t get any financial kickbacks when his runners occasionally win prize money. He seems to be motivated by an otherworldly benevolence and, perhaps, loneliness.
“I tell these guys, you’re lucky I don’t have a family, or none of this would exist,” Staab told the New York Times in 2013.
That would probably suit other local running teams just fine. After all, the West Side Runners, whose best athletes mostly come from Ethiopia, have been the most dominant men’s club team in New York City for years. The club’s closest rival is that longstanding citadel of WASP-y elitism, the New York Athletic Club, whose most competitive runners are often former collegiate standouts. The NYAC guys are very good, but the WSX guys are better—which is why Staab gets frustrated when his athletes are passed over for elite status.
“This has always been my real gripe,” Staab says, “that NYRR always puts in these slower New York Athletic Club people as elite, and our people have to pay.”
He has a point. When you look at the men’s open division team results for the NYC Half, the top two clubs are WSX and NYAC. Each team has five scoring runners. While three out of five NYAC runners were listed as elite athletes before the race, not one WSX runner got the nod. Staab says he can’t remember the last time one of his male runners was made elite for the NYC Half.
When I brought up this up with Weiller, he said that part of the reason for the discrepancy was that NYRR would frequently not be familiar with some of the more itinerant WSX runners that Staab was registering, which made them leery of conferring elite status.
“Without making any judgment whatsoever, I will say that we want to bring in athletes that we have some level of comfort with, in terms of knowing who they’re coached by and who they train with,” Weiller says.
(I asked Staab if any of his runners had been busted for doping. He said that there was one runner, Ezkysas Sisay, who was based out of Flagstaff, Arizona, and who had failed a drug test in 2011, after he had placed 9th in the New York City Marathon. Staab was quick to add that none of his athletes had failed drug tests in recent years, despite frequent testing at local NYRR events.)
On a logistical level, Weiller says that, since there are only a limited number of elite spots available in a given race, NYRR wants to make sure to give them to athletes who are likely to show up. Since many WSX spend significant portions of the year living and training in Ethiopia, the club’s attendance record is far from predictable.
Staab admits that he never knows for certain which of his runners will be around on race day, which is why he didn’t specifically ask for Tilahun to be given an elite spot. (However, as Staab rightly points out, injury-related cancelations are very common in elite-level running.) For last weekend’s race, Staab estimates that he probably spent around $900 on athletes that, for one reason or another, weren’t able to run.
Of course, when WSX runners do show up, they are capable of competing against pretty much anybody, regardless whether they’re granted elite status or not. But until last Sunday, the club hadn’t pulled off a win in a marquee NYRR race. Tilahun’s victory changed that. If he’s back next year to defend his title, he might even get his name on his bib.