One cold morning in November 2020, I was running in Brooklyn with my friend James. We often talked about the various clubs that compose the competitive running scene we inhabit. Sometimes we shared gossip about who was switching to a new club, or which club was falling apart, or who was dating whom. On this particular run we wondered if one of New York’s most dominant clubs, West Side Runners, would still exist after the pandemic.
West Side Runners had long been known as almost untouchable–the most elite of the local clubs, featuring many of the fastest men and women in the city, almost all of them Ethiopian. One runner on WSX, as it’s often abbreviated, was 3rd in the 2019 New York City Marathon. Girma Bekele Gebre’s podium finish stunned the running world: He was local, had no sponsors, and had no coach. He hadn’t even started with the pro runners up front, but with the 50,000 or so “civilian” runners behind them.
The media ignored Gebre during the race, and commentators said his name only in the final mile when it became clear that he was going to finish in the top three. After the race, his performance was covered by major outlets including the New York Times, The Associated Press, and Runner’s World, and all of them relied almost exclusively on quotes from one man: the president of West Side Runners, Bill Staab. The coverage was breezy and light, and it focused on Gebre’s race results rather than his life.
I got home from that run with James and called Bill Staab to ask if WSX was still around, and he said they were. I asked if I could interview him and some of the runners on the team to find out how they were weathering the pandemic. I knew that many of them relied on races to survive in New York, and with races canceled due to COVID protocols, I wanted to know how they were getting by. Staab invited me to Christmas dinner at his home in New Jersey, where I’d be able to meet about a dozen of the WSX runners.
This began a six-month process of getting to know the WSX runners. We shared meals, holidays, and many hours of conversation. I learned that most of them had come to New York to escape political persecution in Ethiopia. Many had been imprisoned there, tortured, and threatened with death, often for no reason at all. I learned that after Girma Bekele Gebre finished 3rd in the marathon, he had returned to his farm in rural Ethiopia and spent 18 months unable to get the $61,000 he’d won for placing that day in November 2019. I learned that when they weren’t running local races, many of the Ethiopians on WSX stocked shelves at liquor stores, mopped floors at bodegas–anything that paid in cash. The athletic visas that allowed them to come to America prevented them from working, so with races canceled, they had no choice but to take under-the-table jobs.
I ultimately wrote a story about West Side Runners, for GQ, that would be named one of the best features of 2021 by Longreads, an esteemed curator of long-form magazine journalism. It was also a notable mention in the Best Sports Writing of 2021, an anthology published annually by Triumph Books. I wasn’t the first to cover WSX, nor was I the first to write about the humanitarian crises in Ethiopia. But I was the first to connect this team to the larger political issues the runners had fled, and to explain how, in America, they were literally running for their lives.
To tell this story, it was crucial that I not rely solely on one source, Bill Staab, though he offered valuable insight and I spent a great deal of time with him as well. As the club’s president since 1980, he’s the authority on WSX. But he didn’t have the runners’ personal experience, so I made the effort to really get to know the runners themselves. This meant having long, often harrowing conversations about the unspeakable violence they and their families had seen or endured in Ethiopia. I had to ask questions multiple times and listen to my recordings over and over to understand my subjects’ broken English. It was hard, painstaking work.
I had to verify what they told me with visa applications and photographic evidence, including two particularly painful pictures of electrical burns one of the men suffered in an Ethiopian prison, and corroborate the runners’ accounts with experts on Ethiopian politics. Most importantly, I had to make sure that each of the men I spoke to understood that I’d have to name them. By talking with me on the record, they knew that they may never set foot in Ethiopia again. Ethiopian authorities are known to punish those who speak to journalists about what happens there. The principles of IMVAIN governed the process: My sources were numerous, independent (they spoke for themselves, not on behalf of other interest groups), authoritative, informed, and named.
Why did I bother? Because I realized after talking to just one or two of the runners that the story was far richer and more important than the other stories about Gebre and WSX I’d read. Had I interviewed only Bill Staab, I’d have written the same basic article as the others. I could have done it from my apartment, it would have taken a few hours, and I’m sure it would have gotten some clicks. But it wouldn’t have advanced the narrative. The story I wrote, on the other hand, literally saved lives: Two of the runners on WSX were approved for political asylum, in part thanks to the exposure my story brought to their plight.
Again, this all began with a question on a casual pre-dawn run: What’s going on with West Side Runners? Often, that’s all it takes: looking around you and asking simple questions about the world you, personally, inhabit. As Salman Rushdie writes in his novel Midnight’s Children, “There are so many stories to tell, too many, such an excess of intertwined lives events miracles places rumors, so dense a commingling of the improbable and the mundane!” Stories, in other words, are all around us. They’re all around you.
Identifying them just takes a little imagination and curiosity. The hard part comes later, when you begin peeling back the layers of the story you’ve stumbled upon and find it’s far more complex than you could have imagined. And when you reach that point, you have a choice: Take the easy way, or heed the evidence–and opportunity–and report the story out. It takes work, but it’s worth the effort. At the very least, you’ll do something original. You might even save someone’s life.