Impression Left Not by Feet

Lelisa Desisa has returned to run Boston and will defend his title on Monday. “I want to show that I am not scared,” he said. Credit John Tully for The New York Times
BOSTON — It was October, six months after Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia won the stricken 2013 Boston Marathon. He had returned for another race. On his way to dinner with friends, he had a request. He wanted to cross the finish line again on Boylston Street to reclaim in a private moment a triumph made irrelevant by tragedy.

“No one knows who I am,” Desisa, 24, said, according to Chris Gooding, a member of his management team who accompanied him.

Upon reaching the finish on April 15 last year, Desisa smiled and wore an olive wreath and held aloft a silver loving cup. He was champion of one of the world’s great marathons. But this is not the memory that endures.

Two hours later, his victory became supplanted by graver images: explosions, a gray-haired runner collapsing near the finish line, a man in a cowboy hat helping to wheel another man who had lost his lower legs.

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Yet it is not true that Desisa has fallen into anonymity. If his victory became a footnote to a horrific afternoon, his response to the bombings resonated widely. It was one of the many gestures, large and small, generous and selfless, made to honor the dead and injured, to console grieving families and to reassure and galvanize and hearten a traumatized city.

Lelisa Desisa won the 2013 Boston Marathon, considered the oldest annual marathon, in 2 hours 10 minutes 22 seconds. Credit Jim Rogash/Getty Images
Last June, Desisa returned his first-place medal — gold-plated with a diamond stud and framed — to the city of Boston in a public ceremony on Boston Common. Privately, he gave his racing bib to a woman who lost her lower leg and her husband who was also seriously injured.

“Sport holds the power to unify and connect people all over the world,” Desisa told a crowd of more than 6,000 runners at the time, speaking through an interpreter. “Sport should never be used as a battleground.”

He has returned to run Boston again on Monday, to defend his title, to earn his living, to enhance his professional visibility and to demonstrate a sense of solidarity and defiance.

“I want to show that I am not scared,” Desisa said Wednesday night after flying 13 hours from Dubai.

In some ways, it will hardly matter whether Desisa wins or loses. He has already made an indelible mark. Not so much by winning the first-place medal, but by giving back the most evident symbol of his triumph.

“He showed his depth of commitment to the people who live around here and the spirit they displayed,” said Tom Grilk, the executive director of the Boston Athletic Association, which organizes the marathon. “He knew that everybody was attacked and he will always be part of that community. There was no more deeper or more tangible way to express it than the way he did.”

Shortly after noon last April 15, there was no one happier in Boston than Lelisa Desisa. He had just won what is considered the oldest annual marathon in 2 hours 10 minutes 22 seconds. His arms swung wide and his legs seemed heavy near the finish, but he was resilient and broke his competitors with a final surge.

“The people are good, the weather is good, everything is good,” he told reporters after the race. He showered, ate and rested in his hotel room, awaiting the official medal ceremony in late afternoon.

Desisa gave his first place medal to the City of Boston as a tribute to those who were killed and injured in the bombings. Credit John Tully for The New York Times
Then he heard on television that something had happened at the finish line. He was confused. Ghastly details began to emerge. His hotel went on lockdown. The medal ceremony was canceled.

“I am the champion, and in a few hours my happiness is sadness,” Desisa said.

His coach, Haji Adillo, had remained in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, to watch the race on television. In late evening in East Africa, Adillo heard about the bombings and frantically tried to contact Desisa.

“Maybe the bombings are not only in one place,” Adillo said. “Maybe they are at the hotel.”

After 15 or 20 minutes, Desisa was reached by phone. He was safe. The next day, he and other elite runners flew out of a stunned and terrified city. Grim numbers began to be counted and confirmed: 3 dead near the finish line, 260 wounded, a police officer killed a few days later during a manhunt.

A week or so after the marathon, Desisa said he was training again in Addis Ababa when an Ethiopian journalist asked, “What are you doing for the people who lost their life in Boston?”

His first thought was one of helplessness: “I can’t do anything.”

Then, Desisa said, he considered giving his medal to the family of Martin Richard, the 8-year-old boy who died near the finish line and whose younger sister, Jane, lost her left leg.

Surviving the Finish Line
“This kid was like a blank paper,” Desisa said Wednesday, with Adillo, his coach, serving as an interpreter. “No one knows what his reach could have been. Maybe he would have become a famous person in America or the world. He lost his life, his opportunity.”

After consulting with marathon officials, Desisa decided to return his medal as a tribute to all those who died and were injured. Larry Marchese, a spokesman for the Richard family, said Thursday that the gesture was “received very warmly.”

“He accomplished something absolutely incredible and immediately thought of the victims and put his own success aside,” Marchese said of Desisa. “Gestures like that have happened repeatedly by friends and strangers throughout the last year and have been an uplifting source of strength for all the families affected, the Richards included.”

Last June 23, Desisa officially returned his medal, set in a frame, presenting it before a large crowd at a 10-kilometer race to Thomas M. Menino, then the mayor of Boston.

At the ceremony, Desisa also asked to meet privately with two of the victims of the bombings, Adrianne Haslet-Davis and her husband Adam Davis. He gave them his marathon racing bib, also encased in a frame, and inscribed this message: “To Adrianne and Adam, your courage is an inspiration to me.”

Adam Davis, 34, a major in the Air Force, had returned only days earlier from a deployment in Afghanistan when he and his wife spent a lazy morning in their apartment, watching on television as Desisa won the marathon.

“This guy has already run the Boston Marathon, and I’m still in my pajamas,” Haslet-Davis, 33, recalled telling her husband. “I’m feeling very lazy. We’ve got to do something with our day.”

They showered and headed out the door. They had lunch and shopped and wandered down to Boylston Street to see the four-hour marathoners pulsing toward the finish line. They were standing there for three minutes, Haslet-Davis said, when the first bomb exploded.

Desisa gave his marathon racing bib to Adam Davis and his wife, Adrianne Haslet-Davis. Both were injured in the bombings. Tully for The 
The couple grabbed each other. The second bomb exploded, this one nearby. Haslet-Davis, a dancer, lost her lower left leg. Davis, home from war without a scratch, now had legs full of shrapnel on a city sidewalk.

Two months later, when she met Desisa, Haslet-Davis sat in a wheelchair on Boston Common. Everything was still raw. Crowds made her nervous. At times during her wrenching recovery, she has said, she wondered whether everyone carried a bomb. When Desisa presented her with his bib, she began to cry.

A year later, the framed bib hangs on the wall of her living room.

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“I was so moved,” Haslet-Davis said of Desisa. “He’s not a Bostonian but he felt such a draw to this city after his experience and how the city pulled together and cheered for him. He wanted to come back and cheer for us.”

On Monday, if they can muster the emotional energy, Haslet-Davis and her husband plan to be at the finish line. They will watch for Desisa, hoping he can win again.

“When he’s halfway around the world, he’s still there with us and encouraging us and saying you can do this,” said Haslet-Davis, who has recently begun to dance again using a special prosthetic leg. “He’s inspired by our bravery just as much as we’re inspired by him winning the race that morning.”

After winning Boston, Desisa won a silver medal in the marathon at the 2013 world track and field championships in Moscow. Last October, he set a course record to win the Boston Athletic Association Half Marathon in 1:00:34. If Monday’s race is fast from the start, he said, he is fit to run under 2:05, five minutes faster than last year.

The prize for first place is $150,000. And for Desisa there is the possibility of something else. A chance for everyone to know who he is. An opportunity to run a marathon would be a tribute and a celebration instead of a tragedy.

“I only want to make happy, not mix happy and sad,” Desisa said. “I want to show that for the Boston people.”