It was the Galen Rupp show at this past Sunday’s Portland Track Festival 5000 meters, as America’s greatest distance talent executed his signature 4600-meter cruise, capped by a crowd-pleasing shift into turbo for the final lap. Nice, though unsurprising.
A few places back, however, an American dream was quietly unfolding. Biya Simbassa—almost unknown even to track insiders, running in eighth place for much of the video above—patiently worked his way up through the 21-runner field to finish fifth, the second American, in a personal best time of 13:29.51. That time represents a huge 32-second improvement this year.
That time also comes close enough to the U.S. Olympic Team Trials qualifying standard of 13:28 that, in all likelihood, the 22-year-old Simbassa will be toeing the line in Eugene this July, a U.S. Olympic team hopeful. What that 32-second improvement really represents, and what was happening off camera as Rupp turned on the jets, was an American dream becoming reality. Corny? Not if you’re the one it’s happening to.
Simbassa was born in 1993 in Asela, Ethiopia, about two hours from the capital, Addis Ababa. And yes, he did run the cliche five miles to school. In 2007, Biya, his parents, two brothers and a sister (“We are not a big family”) sought a better future in the land of opportunity, and landed as refugees in Houston. Simbassa, age 13, accepted, even embraced, the daunting task of learning a new language and a new culture. He had not studied English at all until he started school, but instead of hardships, he constantly references the opportunities he’s been given.
Simbassa joined the Team USA Minnesota distance training group two months after graduating from the University of Oklahoma in 2015, lives in Minneapolis, and works part-time at Fleet Feet Marathon Sports. Fleet Feet general manager Zach Schendel said, “Biya is fantastic, one of the most polite young men we’ve had here. I don’t want to read into it, but I think he’s more grateful than most people. He’s happy to live day-to-day, he’s positive and upbeat. He’s a hard worker and very good with customers.”
I caught up with Biya by phone after his breakthrough race.
What was most difficult about the transition to the U.S.?
I would say the language. It took me a couple years. I put in a lot of time learning, watching TV. Really, I watched cartoons.
What did you like best about the U.S.?
The lifestyle. You have a lot of opportunity, there are so many resources, going to school. Just the opportunity to learn a different culture.
Why did you start running?
I don’t know! A friend in my class—he’s a runner—asked me if I wanted to run track. That was my junior year of high school. I didn’t do any other sports. I ran the mile, two mile, 800, 400, and 200 in relays. I just liked the people around running—they work hard. In my senior year I ran cross country and was seventh at the state meet, and in track in the spring, I was third at the state meet in the mile. Senior year I thought maybe I can do something and get a scholarship to go to college. It was an opportunity to succeed.
Did you get any college offers after high school?
Iowa Central Central Community College offered me a scholarship. It was a good place to start for me. College was not easy because of my language, so I thought I’d start at a small school and work up to Division 1.
I see that you won a national championship in the half-marathon at Iowa Central in 2011. I didn’t know colleges competed at that distance.
Yeah, community colleges run half-marathon after nationals in May. It was a challenge but I liked it. Everybody on the team worked hard for that race—I enjoyed it.
You finished out your college career at University of Oklahoma. When did you start thinking you could run professionally?
It was a different environment training-wise, going from a small school to a big school. It was hard to balance schoolwork with running. But I improved there and at the beginning of my senior year at Oklahoma, I was running good times and my coach told me I should be good at long distances, like road races and marathons. I thought to myself, maybe I could go somewhere and run, chase my dream.
What do you credit with your rapid improvement?
You know, I trust in my coach and hard work. In college, you are always training and you have studies. In college, I did cross country, indoor track and outdoor. Now I can just focus on running. I have a lot of free time to relax and we can plan how I’m going to improve. For example, I didn’t run indoor [track] so I could focus on outdoor. Mostly, I can focus and rest, and that helps me improve.
Give an example of a key workout in the build-up to your recent 5000 PR.
For a couple weeks this past winter, I ran 100 miles a week. This spring, I ran 85 to 95 miles a week. We have done so many good workouts, but this workout about a week before [Portland Track Festival] prepared me for a fast race in Portland: 1 mile: 4:17, 1200: 3:11, 800: 2:04, 400: 58, and four x 200 in 27 or 26 seconds. Three minutes rest in between the mile, 1200, 800, and 400, and one minute rest for the 200s. Coach said I was ready to run fast after that.
At the Portland Track Festival, were you surprised to be that close to Galen Rupp?
I wasn’t surprised. I thought I’d be patient for the first couple laps, and just put myself in a good position. In the last couple laps, I was in the top five or six places and thought, I’m doing something great (!) but I should not do anything crazy and ruin it.
Did you imagine last year you’d be at the Olympic Trials?
That’s been my goal since I got here, and I’ve been working toward it. When I was in the Portland Track Festival race, and I knew I needed to run 13:30, I saw the clock on the last lap and thought, Whoa I gotta go faster, so I sprinted as much as I could.
Do you ever think about what your life would be like if you’d stayed in Ethiopia?
That’s a tough question. I don’t know. I don’t think about it that much—I appreciate every opportunity I have here and just enjoy every moment.
Are you a relaxed person or driven?
Both. I’m driven to get better when I come to training, but I also go with the flow and try to not think too much.
I like pasta a lot, and Ethiopian food. [laughs] No, I don’t make it myself. It’s kind of hard.
Hip-hop. But I’m not like other runners who listen to music before they race. I don’t listen to anything, just try to relax and get to the track early.
I heard you were a big hit when you visited a school in Houston.
It was a fun experience, going to the school and talking to kids, sharing my dream. I love kids. I like to share my story and tell the kids to work hard and do the right thing. It’s very important to me to give back for all the opportunities I’ve had.