Lemawork Ketema

‘Running is easy when you do it right’

Words: Werner Jessner
Photography: Philip Platzer/Red bull content pool

Reigning Wings For Life World Run champion talks school runs, language lessons and how to push yourself further than anyone

Last year, Lemawork Ketema ran against the world and won. The 29-year-old Ethiopian became the inaugural Wings for Life World Run champion, running 78.57km (48.83 miles) in just over five hours in the race that began in Donataul, Austria. There were another 33 races across 32 countries, and almost 36,000 runners. Ketema was the last one to be caught by a ‘catcher car’, which runners strive to stay ahead of; when it reaches them, they’re eliminated. He lives in Austria in conditions that are far from ideal. But he intends to defend his title in May – and thinks he’ll go further.

THE RED BULLETIN : So, is  running 100km a realistic target? 

It is realistic, but whether it’ll actually be possible depends on a lot of things you can’t control, such as the weather. But I’ll do everything I can to be in better shape in 2015 than last time.

Did you consider running in another country instead of Austria?​ 

I’m an asylum seeker and can’t leave the country. I’ve had offers to run in large marathons, but I can’t do it right now. I’ve already had my asylum hearing, but we’re still waiting for the verdict. [Since we interviewed Ketema he’s had some news: the verdict was positive.]

Where do you live?

In an asylum seekers’ hostel about 20km from Vienna, in Greifenstein. There are four of us to a room, which isn’t always straightforward, especially when it comes to getting a night’s sleep. But I don’t see it as a problem. Running is all that counts.

Are you the star of the hostel?

Some people look up to me, while others envy me for my trainers and clothes. It’s mainly the locals who say hello and cheer me on when I’m on training runs. There’s a fisherman on the Danube that I always have to stop for. He says a fish always bites when I stop to say hello. Sometimes he gives me one to take home.
Do you give tips to fun runners?

Of course, and I enjoy working with young people. Running is easy when done right.

What’s your daily routine?

I get up at 6am and do my first run: 25km or sometimes 30km. Then I go to Vienna for my German classes and do my second training session in the evening. And then a massage or even physio, if that’s possible.

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What do you do in your free time?

I don’t have much. I like being busy.

What does your first name mean? 

Lema means green but it also means beautiful. And work is work, as in English. Beautiful work in the green.

The Facts 

Born: October 22, 1985

Nationality: Ethiopian

It was a very good year: As well as winning the Wings for Life WorldRun, Ketema also won Austria’s 2014 Graz Marathon


True, it’s very fitting for Greifenstein. I think that every day when I step out of the door and set off on my training run.

What was your life in Ethiopia like?

It was a 7km journey to and from school every day. I always used to run it. My mother worked in a hospital as a masseuse. We speak on the phone once or twice a week. My mother is very important to me. I also learnt how to massage and worked with marathon runners whose best times were around the 2:04 mark. I understood their bodies and the problems they had and I knew how they approached races. I’m still benefiting from that knowledge now. 

What’s your best marathon time?

It’s nothing special: 2:14. But that was years ago and set at altitude.

What do marathon runners think of the Wings for Life World Run?

It depends. Some of them just look at the kilometre split times and think we’re dawdlers. Others think 78km and more is too far. But the most difficult thing for specialist marathon runners is the lack of structure because there’s no finish line. 

The man you beat in second last year, Peru’s Remigio Quispe, is racing in Austria this time around. Is that an advantage or disadvantage?

A huge advantage! You can push yourself much harder in company. The greatest disadvantage of being in Austria is the lack of training groups. I either train alone or someone bikes alongside me. 

How were you the day after you won?

I woke up with a smile on my face. It was wonderful. I’d achieved what I’d set out to.

What tips do you have for keen amateurs who want to take part in this year’s Wings For Life World Run?

Train every day. Going for a run once a week won’t make you any better. It’s the same for me with my German classes. Getting better is hard work.

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