INTERVIEW-Olympics-Marathon runner hopes to clean up in London

Fri Mar 23, 2012 7:00pm EDT

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By Balazs Koranyi

HAUGESUND, Norway, March 23 (Reuters) - With Scandinavia's spring thaw slowly arriving, Olympic marathon hopeful Urige Buta has emerged from underground. Literally.

The former Ethiopian refugee spent much of the dark Nordic winter running up and down a mile-long service tunnel built for sewage pipes, waiting for the snow to melt.

A far cry from the high-tech, no expense spared training regime that many of his rivals enjoy, but Buta, a Norwegian citizen since 2011, is not much of a complainer.

He is happy just to be alive and safe. The rest is detail.

"You can't always have what you want," Buta told Reuters. "Maybe it's been difficult but my dream has always been to run in the Olympics and that is about to come true.

"Even if your body is tired, your mind can be strong," he added.

Buta fled Ambo, 145 kilometers (90 miles) west of Addis Ababa, in 2003 fearing for his safety after his father was arrested for siding with the 'wrong' political side.

"My father's friend said, 'I know people smugglers, just do as they say and you'll be safe', so I did," Buta said, explaining how he ended up in Norway virtually by accident.

"I don't know what happened to my father. Last I heard he had escaped but nobody knows anything for sure."

POOR IN A RICH PLACE

Norway is one of the world's richest countries with $95,000 in per capita GDP, but Buta enjoys a more modest life. He works full-time as a janitor, using breaks between shifts for training and spending time with his nine-month-old son.

"I start work at 6 a.m. and go maybe 5 or 6 hours without a break, and my legs just ache by then," said Buta, whose two hour, nine minutes marathon best would beat his new country's national record by almost a minute and is set to secure him a spot on the Olympic team.

"But I have to be back at work by three so there is no time to rest," added Buta, whose passport says he is 33 but might not be accurate since his birth was never recorded.

While he is unlikely to contend for a medal in London Buta has a shot at a top 12 finish, which would be a big result for a nation that last enjoyed marathon success in the 1970s and '80s when Grete Waitz and Ingrid Kristiansen dominated the New York City and London marathons, clocking several world records.

Buta arrived in Haugesund, a town of 30,000 some 300 kilometers (190 miles) west of Oslo, after the country's athletic federation enlisted the local club to get him out of a refugee camp.

With four people cramped into a small room that also served as the kitchen, Buta was desperate to get out and was spending close to a quarter of his monthly allowance on gym fees just so he could get some exercise.

The only non-paved road in town was a short gravel strip, so Buta ran up and down endlessly to pass the time.

FEW TAKERS

Then came the real shock: the Scandinavian winter.

"When it snowed, I kept trying to catch the flakes but it always melted in my hands," Buta said. "But after three days the excitement was over and it was just very, very cold."

At first, Buta seemed to be an unremarkable runner so the federation needed to make a few phone calls before sparking interest in Haugesund trainer Erling Askeland, a 30-year veteran of the sport.

"I went to see him and immediately knew he had it in him," said Askeland. "I saw it in how he ran, his style, his form.

"And he's a winner who is always positive even when his body is tired. His mind rises above because he wants to be better."

Haugesund took him on and within two years Buta was Norway's best.

However, since he still had refugee status he was not allowed to travel abroad, leaving him with few training or racing opportunities and also limiting his ability to earn prize money.

Even now, with Norwegian citizenship, Buta does not lead a pampered life.

"We had to pick races based on whether he could fly home by Sunday night to be at work by 6 a.m. on Monday," Askeland said. "We can't work out when we need to, we work out when we have the time and it's much less than ideal."

A top marathon runner will train twice a day except Sunday, which is usually reserved for the week's longest run. In between workouts, most of the time is spent resting or on auxiliary exercise, like strength training.

For Buta though, such a schedule is a pipe dream.

He cleans offices in the morning then takes a few hours break before going back to tidy up the local high school, often using the school gym and shower to sneak in a few extra minutes of exercise.

This spring, though, could bring his biggest break yet.

Facility management firm ISS has agreed to give him a paid leave to focus on the Olympics. While the money is still not enough, Buta will soon have the time to run, a huge luxury.

"Then I can maybe take a medal at the next European championship in 2014," he added. (Editing by Peter Rutherford)

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