You must lean in to hear her speak, for her soft words don't stray far from her lips. When a cameraman asked her to smile for a shot, she initially flashed an embarrassed glance then curved the corners of her mouth slightly upward. Everything about Ethiopian marathoner Elfenesh Alemu's demeanor says she doesn't care for attention.
Then there are times when she puts on a display that leaves her audience brimming with amazement.
Elfenesh Alemu? She's the runner who captured last fall's Tokyo Women's Marathon in 2 hours 24 minutes 47 seconds, staging a huge upset over 2000 Olympic champion and former world record-holder Naoko Takahashi on the latter's home turf, defeating Takahashi by more than two minutes and solidifying her position as one of the top marathoners in the world.
Elfenesh Alemu? She's the runner who five months before her Tokyo victory married 2000 Olympic marathon gold medalist Gezahegne Abera in a historic ceremony that included 25,000 guests in Addis Ababa Stadium.
The 600-meter train on Alemu's dress made the Guinness Book of World Records and had to be supported by 300 students as it flowed around the track in the stadium. Among those in attendance were Ethiopian president Girma Wolde-Giorgis, three-time Boston Marathon winner Fatuma Roba, and Haile Gebrselassie.
The event was also used to promote awareness of the HIV/AIDS scourge in the country, with Alemu's veil later cut into 1,000 pieces with prominent wedding guests signing a pledge on each piece to protect themselves from the disease.
Elfenesh Alemu? She is one of many Ethiopian runners who hope to trek in Roba's footsteps in Monday's Boston Marathon, as surely she will draw cheers from area Ethiopians who have annually made their presence known as runners such as Roba ran the course.
Inspired by Roba's feats in Boston, Alemu ran her first marathon in Addis Ababa in 1997, placing fourth, then she went on to finish first in the Amsterdam Marathon the same year. She also won the Nagano Marathon in 2000 and placed second in the Chicago Marathon in 2001.
Yet there she was yesterday, seated before assembled media, looking perplexed when asked at what point she realized she could compete as a world-class runner.
"I'm just running, I'm not ever sure that I'm a world-class runner," said Alemu, who has raced Boston once, finishing third in 2002 in 2:26:01. "I started running in 1995, when I was 18 and when I was in school. I started running because I liked sports. We [Ethiopian runners] have been inspired by what Fatuma Roba and [1989 winner] Abebe Mekonnen have done."
A win by Alemu would end a winless string for Ethiopia, which hasn't earned a Boston triumph since Roba's 1999 win.
Regardless of where she finishes, Alemu and her husband are likely in for a most eventful time over the next two days.
Before Alemu runs Boston, Abera, who also captured the gold medal in the 2001 World Championships marathon, will run tomorrow's London Marathon, where he is the defending champion. Alemu said Abera will attempt to come to Boston after his race but if he wins, the barrage of media-related commitments will make that unlikely.
"Maybe he will be coming here," said Alemu. But she added that she doesn't expect to see her husband earlier than Tuesday.
Alemu has run in more than 20 marathons, bettering 2:25 six times since 2000. When she finished fourth in the 2000 Osaka International Ladies Marathon with a time of 2:24:47, she lowered her personal best by more than four minutes.
The unassuming runner said much of her improvement came from confidence she garnered in competition. "When I saw myself competing [for victories] in marathons, that's when I knew I could compete in long-distance running," said Alemu.
She enters Boston on the heels of setting a course record (1:10:57) in winning the Bermuda Half-Marathon Jan. 18, and helped lead Ethiopia to the team title in the Yokohama Ekiden (a relay race) Feb. 22 by winning her 10-kilometer stage in 31:31.
Alemu will look to improve upon a bizzare run in Boston in 2002. Her finish was exceptional, but recurring left knee problems hampered her performance.
Upon returning home she had her knee checked out and discovered she had an additional bone attached just beneath the knee. She had it surgically removed.
"The course was fine. It was a bit hilly, but that's something I'm used to," she said. "Because of the knee injury, I didn't perform well."
Because of the close proximity of the marathons, many elite runners are left to choose between Boston and London. Alemu's determination to improve upon her 2002 performance is among the reasons she chose Boston.
"Boston is the biggest marathon in the world," she said. "All of the good marathoners want to run in Boston."