Feature19 Oct 2023

Always learning, Yimer refocuses after Riga with marathon success in his sights


Jemal Yimer Mekonnen at the World Athletics Road Running Championships Riga 23 (© Lauris Viksne)

For as long as he can remember, Jemal Yimer has been a student of the sport. 

The 27-year-old grew up in the Amhara region of Ethiopia, without any running background in his family, but that didn’t stop him idolising the greats. “Haile Gebrselassie,” he says quickly, when asked about his childhood heroes.

Yimer began running at school, juggling football and athletics in his teenage years before deciding to give the latter his full focus. Since 2016, it has consumed him and when he’s not running twice a day – which he does every day except Sunday – one of his hobbies is to watch documentaries about the greats of the sport. 

“Sometimes it’s (Eliud) Kipchoge, Gebrselassie, or Kenenisa (Bekele) – we see the life history of strong athletes, their races,” he says. “That is the backbone of me; it’s motivation for me.”

Yimer earned his first international vest in 2016, finishing fourth at the African Championships over 10,000m. The following year he hit a new level, finishing fourth at the World Cross Country Championships in Uganda, helping Ethiopia to team gold, and he went on to finish fifth in the 10,000m at the 2017 World Championships in London, clocking 26:56.11. 

Ethiopian distance runner Jemal Yimer

Jemal Yimer at the 2017 World Championships in London (© AFP / Getty Images)

In 2018, there was another near-miss at a major podium, Yimer finishing fourth at the World Half Marathon Championships in Valencia, just one second behind the bronze medallist. Later that year, he returned to Valencia and performed like a man possessed, winning in a then Ethiopian half marathon record of 58:33. 

As his focus turned from the track to the roads, he also changed coaches, coming under the guidance of Getamesay Molla, who works with a number of Ethiopia’s best marathoners. Molla had been a good athlete himself, if not quite a champion, and he’d trained alongside many of the country’s best, such as Kenenisa Bekele, before turning his hand to coaching in 2010. 

He began working with Yimer in 2019 and has long been impressed by his protege. “Jemal is a very strong athlete, and he’s versatile,” says Molla. “He’s tough, especially for races. He’s confident in himself.”

They train at various venues on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, doing long runs at high altitude and dropping to medium altitude for faster interval sessions. Yimer typically runs about 200km per week. What impresses the coach most about Yimer?

“His consistency,” says Molla. “Every session, he does not miss.”

In 2020, Yimer made his long-awaited marathon debut. It was due to come at the Boston Marathon in April but after that race was cancelled due to the pandemic, it ended up being at the Valencia Marathon in December, but Yimer was unable to finish, having suffered an early fall. 

In 2021, Boston was back on the calendar and Yimer turned in a superb debut performance there, finishing third in 2:10:38, just one second behind Lemi Berhanu in second. “My expectation for him was winning,” says Molla with a smile. “But the podium was not bad; it was good.”

The transition to the marathon was “not difficult”, says Yimer, but given his stride was better suited to shorter distances, he “had challenges after 15km, 20km” on hard long runs. In 2022, Yimer returned to Boston and finished eighth in 2:08:58, and earlier this year he claimed victory at the Los Angeles Marathon in 2:13:13. In August he finished second at the Antrim Coast Half Marathon in Northern Ireland in 58:38, teeing him up beautifully for a podium tilt at the World Athletics Road Running Championships Riga 23

Jemal Yimer wins the Los Angeles Marathon

Jemal Yimer wins the Los Angeles Marathon (© Getty Images)

The journey to Latvia proved an eventful one, with the Ethiopian team stranded in Germany for close to a full day just two days before the race. Still, Yimer wasn’t going to use that as an excuse. 

“This was not the first time for such a long journey; travelling is always up and down and that is not a reason for how I will perform in the race,” he said on the eve of the championships. “I will focus totally.”

That’s exactly what he did, with Yimer launching himself into contention at the key moment of the half marathon, when Kenya’s Daniel Simiu Ebenyo surged to the front after 16km. Yimer was the only man to go with him, but he soon found the pace too hot to handle. 

Ebenyo also began to falter in the final kilometre, giving way to his teammate Sabastian Kimaru Sawe, but Yimer paid an even heavier price, dropping back to fourth. Try as he might, he was unable to summon the finish needed to overhaul Samwel Nyamai Mailu for the bronze medal, coming home fourth in 59:22. 

Jemal Yimer Mekonnen and Sabastian Kimaru Sawe race in Riga

Jemal Yimer Mekonnen and Sabastian Kimaru Sawe race in Riga (© Mareks Galinovskis)

It was a sign of how hard he’d run that Yimer had to be assisted through the mixed zone by a medic afterwards, his very best coming up just shy of a medal on the day. Still, he has a chance to make amends soon. On 5 November, Yimer will line up at the New York City Marathon against a top-class field. His PB of 2:08:58 ranks him 13th, though his rivals know that’s not a true reflection of his ability. 

“We can expect a good result in New York,” says Molla. “I expect he’ll be on the podium.”

A father to a two-year-old boy, Yimer will sometimes bring his son along to training and the toddler is starting to get a grasp on what his dad does for a living. Yimer knows a race like New York offers a golden opportunity to provide a better future for his family, which is part of his motivation. 

“First I focus on training, then I have many plans on the business end for the future,” he says. Yimer isn’t shy about making them public: “My goal is to run fast times, to run all the major marathons, and to win world and Olympic medals.”

Cathal Dennehy for World Athletics

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