translated by Brett Larner
Two Ethiopian marathoners are training in the Iizuna highlands of Nagano for the Nov. 18 Yokohama International Women's Marathon at the invitation of former marathoner Hiroki Okuma, 53, who runs a Tokyo-based non-profit organization that supports an Ethiopian orphanage. Okuma hopes that by giving young runners from a country with so many competitive athletes the opportunity to race overseas he will help call attention to the level of poverty within Ethiopia and garner support for charitable works.
The two athletes are Salam Mawit Almaiyo, 20, and Almarz Tilahun, 22.* Going by Japanese nicknames Sakura and Tsubaki, the two Ethiopians are interacting with the local residents of Iizuna in their day-to-day lives. Aiming for good results in Yokohama they are training hard everyday on the area's hills and trails.
Okuma, who ran the Hakone Ekiden and Beijing International Marathon in his time as a competitive athlete, has been working with Ethiopian athletes for ten years. While visiting Ethiopia to attend a festival he was shocked by the level of poverty among the average citizens. "A lot of young people in Ethiopia dream of escaping that existence by finding success as a marathoner," he says. In the hope of doing something to help the situation he formed an organization to select two promising young female athletes and invite them to Japan each year. The athletes the group has invited so far include several who have gone on to be good enough to receive support and attention from their national federation.
The program's athletes visit the Iizuna highlands every September. According to Okuma, "With the Togakushi Birdline roadway and lots of mountain trails there is nowhere else in Japan as good as here to train." After focusing on cross-country training the pair will return to Tokyo later in the month. "I'm glad to receive local support for these two athletes who have formed a unique bond with Nagano," said Okuma.
*Translator's note: Transliterated from katakana. Actual romanizations are likely different.