The 7th annual XTERRA Cheyenne Mountain Trail Run 5K/12K/24K on April 9th had its share of surprises.
For one, there was the wind, which was so strong that race organizers couldn’t set up a tent or keep the arch up over the finish line. “It was an amazingly beautiful spring day for a run,” said race director, Victoria Seahorn. “And it was also outrageously windy. Some gusts were 70 miles an hour. On the course, wind at your back is a treat, but running into it is an endurance event like no other.”
Conditions like this don’t usually result in fast times. The 64 runners in this year’s 24K race completed the course in an average time of 2:48. However, this year’s champ, Azerya Weldemariam, stunned almost everyone.
“Weldemariam was incredible with a winning time of 1:34 over the almost 15 mile course,” said Seahorn. “And this is at altitude, with high winds, and on a challenging trail. It’s pretty unbelievable.
To put this in perspective, Weldemariam came in about 13 minutes ahead of runner up, Kyle Anabas. Travis Lavin came in about 90 seconds later in 1:49:48. On the women’s side, Maija Zimmerman was the leader in 2:04, followed by Abby Haughness and Caitlin Felder.
Weldemariam originally hails from Eritrea, which is the same East African country where Meb Keflezighi was born. Meb is the 2004 Olympic silver medalist in the marathon and finished 4th in the 2012 games. He won the Boston Marathon in 2009 and again in 2014 when he was 39 years old.
Weldemariam was introduced to running relatively late in life when he began his mandatory service in the Eritrean military. “We had many conditioning activities and I discovered I loved the sport,” he said. “I was encouraged to start training and shortly after, I was asked to join the Eritrean National Team.”
As part of the Eritrean National Team, Weldemariam traveled throughout Europe and Africa. He placed 2nd overall in four World Mountain Races and was 1st two years in a row in the World Mountain Running Grand Prix.
After training with the team for seven years, Weldemariam’s coach encouraged him to come to America to try to secure a safer place for his family to live.
Eritrea is located in the Horn of Africa and is bordered by Sudan, Ethiopia, and Djibouti. In 1947, the United Nations called for Eritrea to be federated with Ethiopia and ruled by the Ethiopian Emperor. This resolution was unpopular with the Eritreans, and in 1958, the Eritrean Liberation Movement began a war for independence with Ethiopia that would last for over 30 years.
Finally, in 1993, Eritrea declared its independence and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) seized power. No other elections have been held since then and no other political groups are allowed to organize. Hostility between Djibouti and Ethiopia still exist, and according to Human Rights Watch, the Eritrean government’s human rights record is among the worst in the world. In 2016, Reporters Without Borders ranked 180 countries from greatest freedom of the press to least, and Eritrea came in last.
Since coming to America, Weldemariam has been trying to outrun his country’s brutal history. In 2016, he was 2nd in the Pikes Peak Marathon and 1st in the National Trail Running Championship in Moab, Utah in the marathon distance.
“I’m working hard,” said Weldemariam, who works full-time at Great Wolf Lodge. He is trying to make enough money for his family – still in Eritrea – to join him. “I run for freedom,” said Weldemariam. “But also, I run so my family can come here and be safe.”
View race results here.