An Ethiopian Israeli’s Run From His Trailer Home to the Rio Olympics

When Ageze Guadie ran the Rotterdam Marathon this month, it was the first time he had ever tried the race. He qualified for Brazil by nine seconds.

Marathoner Ageze Guadie at the Wingate Institute near Netanya, April 2016.
Uri Talshir

The story of Ageze Guadie is a bit like the story of someone who waits at the bus stop every day but the driver never notices him. The bus drives on, the man tries to catch it and just misses it at the next stop. One day, just as the door is slamming on his face, he gets in. He gets noticed.

Guadie was born in Ethiopia in 1989 and in 2002 came with his family to Israel. While his family was housed in an absorption center in Be’er Sheva, the 13-year-old was sent to a boarding school near Hadera far away.

Before that he had no connection to sports. When he tried to join the local running team, the coach said he was too weak and skinny. Guadie found himself training alone on the beach until he would pass the runners who had made the team instead of him.

Representing the club Hapoel Emek Hefer, Guadie won regional and national competitions at middle distances for under-16s. He even was the Israeli youth champion in cross country, but the army didn’t grant him the benefits of an “outstanding athlete” during his military service. He was merely considered an “active athlete.”

“It seems I wasn’t good enough and there were others,” says Guadie, who served as a technical quartermaster.

Both as a soldier and after his release, Guadie worked as a cafe waiter and a mover. He used the money to pay for training camps. In 2011 he finished third in a 10-kilometer race but never felt he was appreciated.

“I was happy I had the ability, but even then no one helped me out,” he says. “I asked myself what would happen. Everything I earned I spent on training, I lived on an overdraft and felt it couldn’t continue that way.”

Ageze Guadie greeted at Ben-Gurion International Aiport after his strong showing at the Rotterdam Marathon, April 2016.
Uri Talshir

Four years ago he noticed an ad for physical education studies at the Wingate Institute, and decided to sign up. “Sports are what I like,” he said. “I figured if I didn’t succeed in competitive sports, at least I’d learn something and work hard.”

But a four-hour talk with Zohar Zimro, a former Israeli Olympic marathon runner and now a respected coach, helped convince him to keep running.  “You have talent and it will be a shame if you have pangs if you stop,” he quotes Zimro.

To save on expenses as a college student, Guadie moved into a very modest trailer home at Wingate. Later he started training with Zimro.

At the end of last November, Guadie happened to see a Facebook post by physiologist Muli Epstein, which listed the qualifying times for making this year’s Rio Olympics. The qualifying time for the men’s marathon was now two minutes lower, at 2:19:00.

A little over a week later, Guadie finished third in the Israeli championships in the half marathon, with only Marhu Teferi and Berihun Weve beating him.

“Still, no one looked at me as a leading athlete; everyone flew off to training camps and I stayed here,” says Guadie, who became a sports teacher at a school in Netanya.

“I thought about what Muli had posted. Berihun Weve told me: ‘Come with us and try, you have nothing to lose.’ I felt that if I did 21 kilometers in 1:07, I had the second half in my legs. Your gut tells you that you can do it. Go for it. I had faith and courage; it came from the heart.”

Marathon runner Ageze Guadie's trailer home, April 2016.
Uri Talshir

College can wait

So that’s how Guadie began dreaming about the Olympic marathon, a race he had never run. Veteran Israeli runners had set their sights on the April 10 Rotterdam Marathon, the last chance to qualify for Rio. Tesama Moogas had already qualified. In mid-February, Guadie went to a 54-day training camp in Ethiopia; his running friends helped him with his expenses.

There he tried a 40-kilometer run for the first time; he ran it on gravel. Later he did a 35-kilometer run on the road.

He planned to take his college tests and finish his seminar paper later; instead he would spend all his time and energy trying to make it to Brazil. The night before the race in Rotterdam, he was overlooked among the runners expected to make the Olympics. Israeli sports experts figured Guadie was just trying to gain experience.

Guadie thought differently of course he says he arrived in Rotterdam with a world of confidence. The plan was for the entire Israeli team to run at 3:17 per kilometer, and after 32 kilometers (20 miles) everyone would do what he could.

“In the first 10 kilometers Zohar pulled me [along]. I ran together with Marhu, Berihun and Melkam Jember. Fifteen kilometers went by and I was okay, I was with them. Twenty kilometers I was there. Thirty still alive with the pack,” Guadie says.

“Later only Marhu and I remained. At the 38th kilometer he picked up speed and I kept at the same pace because I didn’t want to burn out in my first marathon. I stayed by myself and knew I needed to fight and give it everything I had; there was no going back.”

In the last two kilometers, Guadie saw the crowds alongside the road cheering and clapping, and he picked up speed. At 10 meters to the finish line, the clock showed 2:18:40.

“My hamstring muscle on my right leg was already completely cramped, locked. That was it, my legs didn’t move anymore. Collapsed. Maybe because of what I had learned at Wingate, I started to make movements with my arms, like swimming, and that’s how I moved forward. It felt like running inside a dream.”

When Guadie woke up from that dream, he saw his final time 2:18:51. He met the Olympic qualifying criteria by nine seconds.

Someone who had never run 26 miles 42.2 kilometers had become an Olympic marathoner. Teferi finished first among the Israelis at 2:18:19, so he’ll be going to Rio too.

“I was completely shattered, Marhu hugged me and everyone was surprised. Even Zohar told me he didn’t believe it. I remembered how my mother didn’t want me to run she said it was hard and was afraid I’d be too skinny,” Guadie says.

“In the end she understood, and after she saw how much I had invested, she really wanted to see me on television. Immediately after I made the [qualifying time], I thought about how her dream had come true. At least I did one good thing. I made her happy.”

Race to glory

When Guadie walks around Wingate, almost everyone compliments him on his great achievement. When he returned to Ben-Gurion International Airport this month, he heard the shofar blowing.

“All that noise was too much for me,” he laughs. “And suddenly all my family and friends were there. If it was possible, I would have left through the back door and run away,” he says.

“The next day I was at an Olympic Committee seminar. Everyone was talking about goals and rules, and I was still trying to absorb it all. I still hadn’t had time to breathe; I only wanted to go to my trailer, relax and sleep.”

So, he did. When he finally opened the door to his trailer home, he came out with two cups of black coffee and a devastating smile.

He’s the seventh of nine children, but only he has any connection to sports. While the system may not have always believed in him, he could still count on a supportive environment, both family and fellow runners.

“I used to hate doing a lot of kilometers. I won’t forget the last few meters in Rotterdam. This marathon taught me two things: Ability and courage. To believe in yourself and not be afraid, to go for broke, to turn the impossible into the possible,” says Guadie, who set the second-best time for an Israeli running his first marathon, after Moogas.

“I was so hungry to succeed, and maybe it’s a bonus for all the years I didn’t succeed. Maybe finally it connected after no one gave me a chance. I always wanted them to listen to me and believe in me. I believed that the people close to me supported me,” he adds.

“Many people told me I wasn’t capable, and it seems I wasn’t the first or last who broke out late. Children who were never noticed and no one thought about have to believe and not give up.”

So at age 26, Guadie finally caught the bus slipping away from him. This summer he’ll fly to Rio and run his second-ever marathon at the Olympics.

“I didn’t do it by accident, I worked very hard for it,” he says. “Now I have to dream big-time, to set a personal record and earn a respectable place. If get there, I’ll set my sights as high as possible. Either way, I know where I came from and will continue to live the normal life I had.”