In July, when Lonah Chemtai Salpeter crossed the finish line of the World Championship marathon in Eugene, Ore., in third place, an Israeli flag was draped around her back.
Salpeter, who immigrated to Israel from Kenya, was ecstatic. “I’m so proud to represent my country,” she said after the race.
She was praised by Prime Minister Yair Lapid. “Lonah’s willpower and determination are a source of pride for Israeli athletics and for the entire State of Israel,” he tweeted.
Salpeter, 33, had won Israel’s fourth-ever world championship medal and in a distance mostly dominated by runners representing East African countries. She was already the first Israeli to win a major marathon, running away with the gold medal at the Tokyo Marathon in 2020. And on Sunday, she will be one of the favorites to win the New York City Marathon, entering the race with the fastest career marathon time of any competitor.
Her path to get here was not a straight line: Salpeter had to fight for citizenship in the country where she fell in love with her sport. And it surely wasn’t the journey that she or her husband, who is also her coach, could have anticipated a few years ago.
Salpeter moved in 2008 to Herzliya, Israel, near Tel Aviv, to work as a nanny for a Kenyan diplomat. Running became an activity to get her out of the house after the day was done. “It was a hobby,” she said over the phone from Iten, Kenya, where she was training. “I felt bored in the house so I went jogging in the park with everyone.”
Jogging is a relative term here. She was working a full-time job and was short on time, she said, so she covered miles quickly. Fellow runners started taking notice as she sped through local parks. “It was something I was enjoying,” she said. “It was nothing like, ‘I will be professional one day.’”
Still, she signed up for some local races, entering without much formal training. In 2011, she met Dan Salpeter, an Israeli former competitive runner and coach who was studying physical education at an institute near Tel Aviv. A friendship turned into a romantic relationship as her Israeli visa was about to expire.
“I told myself that if he really loves me, maybe he will come with me,” Salpeter said.
Together they traveled to Kenya in 2013 with hopes of returning to Israel to build a life together. It was around that time that Salpeter first visited the marathon training hotbed of Iten, where many of Kenya’s running royalty and visiting athletes train, some 8,000 feet above sea level in the Great Rift Valley. Dan Salpeter thought he could develop Salpeter into a world-class athlete but not necessarily one who would routinely stand atop podiums.
Racing to the Finish Line
The New York City Marathon will take place on Nov. 6. The 26.2-mile, five-borough race begins in Staten Island and ends in Central Park.
The couple married in 2014 and returned to Israel with a visa. Salpeter became pregnant shortly thereafter. It was only after Salpeter became a mother that her training really started to click into gear. Only then did she find herself on the precipice of times that would put her in the running against the world’s best athletes. And only then did she realize that a fast track to Israeli citizenship could be found on the road to the Olympics.
If Salpeter were Jewish, her path to citizenship would have been simple through the “Law of Return,” the automatic right to claim Israeli citizenship as a Jew or someone with a Jewish parent or grandparent. The spouse of an Israeli citizen can receive a work visa and temporary residence, but the path to citizenship can take four to seven years according to Joshua Pex, an Israeli immigration lawyer.
If Salpeter were to qualify for the Olympics in the marathon, finishing in under 2 hours 45 minutes, surely her citizenship process would be expedited, she thought.
The couple had been to an Interior Ministry office a few months prior, and “the clerk over there was very tough with her,” Dan Salpeter said. “It made the process very intolerable.” But if Salpeter could run fast, she figured, surely some documents could be processed faster, too.
“I said to myself, ‘Give it a chance. If you have the standard it will be easier,’” Salpeter recalled. In February 2016, Salpeter won the Tel Aviv Marathon with a time of 2:40:16, close to five minutes under the qualification time for the Rio Olympics.
Here was an athlete, married to an Israeli man, who could represent Israel in the Olympics in a few months’ time.
She returned to the interior office trailed by a swarm of news media members. “Suddenly, it was like a celebrity coming to the office,” Dan Salpeter said. “Everybody was happy and wanted to get a photo of her.”
The slow churn of bureaucracy sped up to match Salpeter’s running accomplishments.
“It’s rare for a normal couple,” Pex said. “They will hardly ever expedite the process.” But the Interior Ministry can speed along applicants who provide a “meaningful contribution to Israeli culture, society and security,” he said.
Salpeter has since represented Israel in major marathons and track meets around the world. She did represent Israel at the 2016 Olympics, but she dropped out of the race because of shoulder problems from breastfeeding. She won the 10,000 meters at the European Championships in 2018, and won the Florence Marathon the same year. She won the Prague Marathon in 2019 and was in the lead pack of the Olympic Marathon in Japan last summer with less than five kilometers to go but fell back as she suffered from menstrual cramps. (“You’re a woman, you get it,” she said to a reporter, bugging her eyes out to emphasize the pain.)
Acceptance has not always come easy though. While she declined to directly address facing racism in Israel, Salpeter has not always felt universal support as an East African immigrant. But when she is winning, she makes it clear: she’s a star.
“People tell me, ‘You inspire us, you make us proud,’ so that really motivates me a lot,” Salpeter said. “I want to inspire the younger generation in Israel. Running like this is possible.”
Despite having the fastest career marathon time of the competitors who will line up in Staten Island on Sunday, Salpeter has not commanded as much attention as some other favorites, including the Kenyan Hellen Obiri, a two-time Olympic medalist and seven-time individual world-championship medalist, who is set to run her debut marathon in New York. The city is plastered with advertisements that ask New Yorkers: “Haven’t heard of Hellen Obiri? You will.” No pressure.
Salpeter and Obiri will be joined by Gotytom Gebreslase of Ethiopia, the winner of this year’s World Championship marathon, and Edna Kiplagat of Kenya, the 2010 winner of the New York City Marathon, who at 42 has shown no signs of slowing down after coming in second at the Boston Marathon last year. (The winner of that race, Diana Kipyokei, was disqualified after a positive drug test. Kiplagat would be named the winner should Kipyokei’s suspension be finalized.)
“The field is not that easy,” Salpeter said. “You come to challenge yourself in New York City.”
When she was asked about her goals for the race, her response was forthright. “To win,” she said, as if she had been asked if the sky was blue. “Everyone wants to win.”