West Side Story – How the “Minor Leaguers” Impacted the NYC Marathon

From the “Intervals” section of the Jan/Feb 2020 issue of New England Runner magazine

 

A week after winning the 2019 Cape Cod Marathon, WSX runner Birhanu Dare Kemal would place 13th at the NYC Marathon. Photo by FitzFoto/NERunner

 

 

Located out of the Bronx in New York, the West Side Runners Club (WSX) is probably one you’ve heard of. The 350-member squad is mostly made up of international runners with Ethiopians comprising a third of its members.

 

The group started as a small group of athletes from the West Side YMCA. Running enthusiast Bill Staab unexpectantly changed all that in 1980 when he helped three Columbian runners get into the New York City Marathon.

 

Staab was working in Steel sales and administration at the time, but he soon had a non-paying part-time job when word got out he could get international runners into races.

 

Staab is now 80, the president of the club and still going full-bore after retiring a decade ago. In 42 years he’s helped innumerable immigrants from South America and Africa.

 

NYC Marathon bronze medalist Girma Bekele Gebre with longtime West Side Runners president and manager Bill Staab. Photo courtesy of WSX

 

 

Originally, it was athletes from Ecuador, Brazil, Mexico and other Latin American countries. He believes in that time he’s spent close to a million dollars of his own money on memberships and entry fees, as well as writing thousands of letters in support of visa-seeking athletes.

 

Most West Side Runners have athlete visas that prevent them from taking other jobs. What money they make goes to sharing apartment rent in the Bronx, or sending to family. Many look at Staab as a father figure. Last year when he had to leave his Upper West Side apartment for a medical procedure, he was accompanied by 15 Ethiopian athletes.

 

Staab can get athletes into mid-tier events but it’s not a lucrative market, especially for what he refers to as his “minor league runners.”

 

If you turn to our On Site article on the Cape Cod Marathon on pg. 24 you’ll see a photo of Chowda Challenge King Esteban Vanegas, a long-time West Side Runner and native of Ecuador now living in Michigan. Also pictured are current West Side members Birhanu Dare Kemal (the race winner) and Gishu Dida (3rd).

 

West Side Runner Gishu Dida with Whirlaway’s Shane Whalen at the 17-mile mark of the Cape Cod Marathon. Photo by FitzFoto/NERunner

 

 

When we talked to Kemal and he mentioned he was running New York a week later, we thought we misheard, but when he reiterated that he was entered and hoping to do well, we checked the results a week later. Here’s where things got interesting and brought the West Side Runners—a dominant local team of mainly “minor leaguers”—front and center in the largest marathon on the planet.

 

Three West Side Runners showed up in the early mile splits of the NYC Marathon, but they weren’t in the elite lead pack. Kemal was one of them and how is that possible?

 

The first eight miles of the NYC course separates the invited elites with names on their bibs, from regional elites wearing regular bib numbers. When the fields merged the WSX runners joined the leaders. For Kemal this wouldn’t last, but he’d acquit himself admirably by placing 13th in 2:13:35.

 

Truly shocking was the performance of teammate Girma Bekele Gebre. The heretofore “minor leaguer” ran a 5-minute-plus PR of 2:08:35 to place third. Used to making a thousand here and there, usually tithed back home to help his family support his 4-year-old daughter, Gebre earned $61,000 and is fielding offers with the help of long-time manager Bill Staab.

 

 

 

 

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