Our Man in Arlington

December 5, 2017 4:38 PM0 comments

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Perhaps you noticed that the winner of October’s Arlington-based Marine Corps Marathon was from Ethiopia.

You may not have noticed that 32-year-old Desta Beriso Morkama, who placed first at 2:25:14, is an Arlingtonian with an intricate local support network (the proverbial village).

His talent and exhaustive work is backed by county programs, a dedicated trainer and private company sponsorship.

No one sings Desta’s praises more than longtime Arlington runner and coach Jay Jacob Wind, who at age 67 can himself boast of having run thousands of races, including 185 of the certified marathon endurance races — and 32 Boston marathons since 1979.

“When we first started working together, Desta was a distance runner with a very good marathon history, but did not have a kick,” Wind told me, describing the marathoner strategy for the home stretch. He watched Desta’s early runs in the Crystal City Twilighter and with the Potomac Valley Track Club.

During the 15 months Wind worked to train Desta, the new arrival at first was bested by several top runners at events in Leesburg, Annapolis, Richmond and Rockville. “But at the Marine Corps event, he had such a strong kick, he finished two and a half minutes ahead of second place,” the coach said. As a coach (and unofficial historian of Arlington running), Wind feels his training theories were confirmed. Desta now wins regularly.

Wind, who promotes running techniques and charities through his nonprofit Safety and Health Foundation, takes a scientific approach to pacing (lots of references to biochemical enzymes and phosphates) to “build up endurance and find your inner strength” so you don’t tire too fast. Top runners approach the 26.2-mile race in three phases, he told me, the start, the surge and the sprint. Wind, a retired computer contractor for government agencies, coached Desta for 15 months while competing against some of the area’s top names.

But Desta may have had another secret. He was presented with an electric bicycle from my friend Alan Levine, founder of Hybrid Pedals Levine feels certain Desta “was able to train on his way back and forth from training and the e-bike likely made the difference.”

Desta arrived in the United States in September 2016 on a six-month visa, later seeking asylum because of persecution in Ethiopia. He is a member of the Oromo ethnic group in that unstable country — famous as runners in the Olympics and other global competitions.

In Arlington, Wind’s foundation and another benefactor Karla McDuffie helped him with rent in his Nauck home, and later got him a work permit and Social Security number. The county language training program gave him financial aid.

“A lot of immigrants come to the USA thinking the streets are paved with gold,” Wind said. But Desta works hard — the graveyard shift doing customer service at an Arlington 7-11 — before his morning two-hour run. He is now established enough to earn winnings from his races.

Desta does volunteer youth coaching and helps promote his sponsors such as Boom Nutrition and VRYPAC backpacks. His English is improving, in part thanks to texting with Wind.

Desta sent me an emailed statement after Thanksgiving thanking his American benefactors and “for all the race directors who have welcomed me to their events,” as he put it. “I am just thankful to everyone.”

***

On the recent National Day of Giving, I witnessed some Arlingtonians at their best. Dozens gathered at the Navy League Building to celebrate a major donation ($250,000) from an estate to benefit people with disabilities at Community Residences.

Combined with an art sale by NOVA ArtWorks, the event marked another chapter in the remarkable life of donor Charles Gordon, with wife Ella. Charles Gordon, who died last April at 97, was a British citizen who survived the battle of Dunkirk as a POW.

The onetime-coal miner-turned-painter came to Arlington in 1954 as a footman for the British embassy, ending up a beloved property manager who touched many in attendance on Nov. 28.

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