INDIANAPOLIS — Futsum Zienasellassie was essentially retired. He is the most decorated long distance runner in Indiana high school history, led Northern Arizona to its first NCAA cross country title, won a national title as a professional.
Yet that doesn’t always mean much in this sport.
With a wife and a young son, you can’t just chase after a dream. Zienasellassie, 29, has no shoe deal or other sponsor.
After:She started jogging a mile at age 32. She will run her last mini-marathon on Saturday at age 80.
So during the pandemic, he stopped training altogether for 10 weeks, took a part-time job shoveling snow at a Flagstaff golf course, worked at a recreation center.
“You just think, ‘We picked the wrong sport,'” he said. “For the time we devote to it, for the strength with which we work.”
He didn’t choose to run. The race chose him. And he chose Indianapolis as his final stop on a possible path to the 2024 Paris Olympics.
It’s not often that a 13.1-mile race comes down to a sprint, but this one did. Leonard Korir edged out Zienasellassie just before the finish to win the USA Half Marathon on Saturday at the OneAmerica 500 Festival Mini-Marathon.
It was the first in-person Mini since 2019 after the annual race was canceled twice during the pandemic. The race started downtown, went through the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and finished in Military Park.
Korir, an American Olympic hurdler, clocked 1 hour, 2 minutes, 35 seconds. He finished one second ahead of Zienasellassie.
On a 50-degree morning with 15mph winds, neither could beat the Mini record of 1:01:52 set by Kenyan Nelson Oyugi in 2014.
Indianapolis native Noah Droddy, the fastest marathon runner in Indiana history, was sixth in 1:03:51.
North Central graduate Zienasellassie was not going to run here because his wife, Samrawit, was attending a graduation ceremony in northern Arizona. She insisted that he try. Without his wife, he says, he would have stopped long ago.
“My professional career has been strange,” Zienasellassie said. “It was not very regular. Much of it is, obviously, is on me. And that’s partly how the circumstances happened.
He’s on such a resurgence that he can really consider making the US Olympic marathon team. He hasn’t run a marathon yet but promises to do so soon. First, he is to represent Team USA at the World Half Marathon Championship, scheduled for November 13 in Yangzhou – if the race is not postponed or moved, as other events in China have been.
“He’s the best he’s ever been,” said James McKirdy, his coach at Flagstaff for the past year.
McKirdy also has an underdog history, as the former personal trainer started training runners remotely in 2018 with “$2,000 to my name.” He and Zienasellassie are collaborating, and the evidence is there. The workouts work.
“It’s really hard to play on yourself,” Zienasellassie said.
Recent races have been some of the best of his life: fifth in the United States Half Marathon in 1:01:21 in Hardeeville, SC on Dec. 5; sixth in the 15 kilometer race in the United States in 43:28 in Jacksonville on March 5; fourth (and first American) in the Cherry Blossom 10-mile in Washington, DC on April 3.
Now in his adopted hometown, runner-up in another half marathon in the United States.
Zienasellassie himself has joined the online coaches at mckirdytrained.com. He’s always known what drives him to physical fitness, but he said he didn’t want to take on the responsibility alone.
He wants a coach. McKirdy is that coach.
“I’m learning from him, hopefully as much as he’s learning from me,” McKirdy said.
Consistency is key, athlete and coach agreed. Zienasellassie isn’t one to do “the flashy work,” McKirdy said.
But the runner remained largely healthy, a consequence of his moderate 85-mile weeks and trainers who “were not greedy” overtraining him at a younger age. Zienasellassie credited Hall of Fame coach Rick Stover of Eric Heins of North Central and Northern Arizona (now in Louisville) with shaping his destiny.
In Zienasellassie’s last collegiate track race, 10,000 meters, he finished just 1.1 seconds behind 17-time NCAA champion Edward Cheserek of Oregon. Six years later, Hoosier, of Eritrean descent, is keeping that promise.
“I really hope to build on that,” Zienasellassie said.
Contact IndyStar reporter David Woods at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidWoods007.