Barefoot or borrowed shoes, no problem for Ethiopia’s marathoners

Derara Hurisa, on Sunday, ran in borrowed shoes and yet set a course record at the Mumbai Marathon.

Ethopian runner Derara Hurisa celebrates after crossing the finishing line in the Mumbai Marathon.   -  Aadesh Choudhari

Derara Hurisa’s powerful surge to the finish on borrowed shoes at the Tata Mumbai Marathon 2020 pointed to the distance Ethiopian long-distance running has travelled, from the days of barefoot Olympic champion Abebe Bikila.

Hurisa made news for setting a course record — clocking 2:08:09 — wearing a branded shoe, a product marketed as the running tool for faster performance. The latter covered the cobbled Rome roads on bare feet hardened by military training; he was timed at 2:15:16 which became the Olympic record in 1960, bettering Emil Zatopek’s mark.

Hurisa was handed a Nike Vaporfly shoe by fellow Ethiopian Abraham Girma as timely replacement for his regular shoe, which was misplaced in transit from Addis Ababa to Mumbai. The cross country runner revealed he wore the borrowed brand for the first time in the competition. It was also his debut run on the seafront route; he emerged a clear winner among 70 elite men marathoners participating, improving on Gideon Kipketer’s 2016 record. Incidentally, shoe lender Girma is not listed among the first 20 finishers in Mumbai.

Ethiopian legend

Bikila, a soldier in the imperial guard responsible for security to the Ethiopian ruler, Emperor Haile Selassie, decided to run in Rome without shoes, as recorded in history, after his regular pair got worn out and the new pair felt uncomfortable. Familiar with barefoot running as part of army regimen, he arrived from Addis Ababa determined to etch the nation’s name in Olympic history. Wearing vest No. 11, he loped to victory on a route lit by flaming torches — the marathon was held in the evening to help runners escape the heat.


After his record-breaking feat, Bikila returned to the Olympic stage in Tokyo four years later, in 1964. He became a hero after winning the second consecutive marathon gold, this time wearing shoes, and was gifted a car by the Emperor.

Hurisa’s winning time on the Sunday morning run is inside the 2020 Tokyo Olympics qualification time for men (2:11:30), but the depth in Ethiopian marathon running is such that the champion on debut in Mumbai may have to be satisfied competing for prize money in near future, eyeing contracts from athletics equipment giants, besides appearance fee from event promoters.

Unknown face

Hurisa was an unknown face. His only notable international representation was a second place four years ago at the African U-20 Cross Country event.

The business of road running, as Tokyo 2020 approaches this year, demands more commitment from sensations like Hurisa. Richer by USD 60,000, the 23-year-old champion appeared for post-race media interviews in Mumbai clad in Adidas. Live race footage showed him pounding the road clad in Nike special shoes.

Support from manufacturers is linked to brand endorsement. When quizzed by the media about the brand switch on the road and later, Hurisa replied that Adidas supported him with shoes and no contract was signed and that circumstances forced him to wear a borrowed shoe designed by a rival manufacturer.

Startling feat

The course record time on debut over the marathon distance is a startling feat, fuelled by the impatience of the youth displayed in the imperious finish. Hurisa left behind fellow Ethiopian Ayele Abshero in second place.

Did the shoe make a difference over a distance made famous across Africa by barefoot marathon legend Bikila? Time will tell.

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