By Sarah Berry
Makda Haji is not your average runner.
The 29-year-old is beating Olympians, won the Sydney marathon this year, seven minutes ahead of the second female athlete. She is also returning to defend her 15-kilometre City2Sea title in Melbourne on Sunday.
These alone are extraordinary achievements. They are all the more extraordinary because of circumstances under which she has achieved them.
One and a half years ago, Makda fled an “unsafe” situation in Ethiopia after her father was killed and, leaving behind her mother and siblings, she arrived in Australia not speaking a word of English for the Gold Coast Marathon.
Now, living in Red Cross accommodation in Melbourne, while she waits for her asylum application to be processed, Haji has just enough money to feed herself and catch public transport to training.
The prize money she wins from running competitions she sends back to her family in Ethiopia, explains coach Gregor Gojrzewski, who began training Makda about a year ago when she approached him at the Essendon track and, in broken English, asked for his assistance.
He took her on, he says, because prodigious talent aside, “she really needs help”.
“She didn’t know where she was going to sleep the next day,” says Gojrzewski, a former representative for Poland who coaches numerous elite Australian athletes.
Gojrzewski now trains Makda three times a week, while on other days she learns English and runs twice daily by herself as she patiently awaits her fate.
“She’s in limbo,” he explains, saying that Makda has been moved three times in the last year. “It’s very hard, but she has good mental strength and is very self-motivated.”
Luckily, Gojrzewski says that she has “amazing” people helping her, including physiotherapist Chris Constantinou, who is “sponsoring” Makda with treatments for injury prevention, a counsellor, Halake Ganyu and the Red Cross.
“Red Cross supports people in the community who are seeking asylum,” a spokeswoman from Red Cross told Fairfax. “Asylum seekers can face extreme hardship and uncertainty about the future. Our programs are designed to provide support and opportunities for asylum seekers while they resolve their immigration status.
“We cannot comment on any specific individuals or whether they are or are not a client.
“The story of Makda Haji shows the incredible contributions that newcomers to Australia can make as well as their amazing strength and resilience in the face of extreme hardship.”
Makda’s preparation on the morning of the race will involve an early breakfast – toast or Ethiopian porridge, Gojrzewski explains – plus an hour-long warm-up including some easy jogging, acceleration and 15 minutes of “getting focused”.
For recreational runners, Gojrzewski advises staying well hydrated and having some type of carb for breakfast (toast and honey, porridge or juice, for example. “Some people have eggs, but I wouldn’t recommend a full English breakfast,” he says, chuckling.)
He suggests a light jog to warm-up and “wake your body up”, but no “static stretching” and advises against going with the crowd. “Listen to your own body,” he says, adding that “the optimal pace” is one where you can still talk.
After the race he recommends eating protein and a good breakfast. “Your body needs food,” he says, adding that jumping in the ocean or getting a massage are good ways to cool your body down post race. But his best advice? “Enjoy it.”