Back for more: Cape Elizabeth family hosts Ethiopian for Beach to Beacon, surgery

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CAPE ELIZABETH — This will be the fourth year Jeff and Kerri Berman have hosted an elite foreign runner visiting Cape Elizabeth for the TD Banknorth Beach to Beacon 10K, and it may be the most memorable.

Dejene Birhanu, who stayed with the Bermans last year before finishing eighth in the 2008 race, will return to their Channel View Road home for the Aug. 1 event.

Then, on Aug. 3, Jeff Berman, an ophthalmologist, will perform eye surgery on the Ethiopian who he noticed last year had ptosis, a droopy eyelid.

The easy fix – which might not have been so easy in Africa, Kerri Berman, a nurse, said – will be done entirely pro bono by Jeff Berman and his partner. They even got an anesthesiologist to provide services for free.

“Jeff noticed right away, and said ‘I bet we could fix that for you,” Kerri Berman said. “It’s fate that he got a place with an eye surgeon. What are the chances of that?”

Birhanu’s return meant more planning than usual – the Bermans have learned over several years of hosting that it’s actually best to make no plans, since with the elite runners, everything happens last minute. The runner could fly in on Tuesday or on Friday night, she said, and you never know how long they’re staying. But the doctor couldn’t put off his planning – he had to reserve the operating room and set a date with the anesthesia team as soon as Birhanu’s manager announced he’d return to Cape for the race. Birhanu will be ready to run another 10K race the following weekend, and will be back for a post-op checkup a few days later.

Despite the anticipation around the surgery, Berman was far more excited just to have a friend back in her home, and the neighborhood filled with elite runners.

“They’re so humble, sweet, and great with the kids,” she said. “They’re lovely, lovely people to have around. You can’t help but fall in love with them.”

The whole neighborhood gets excited, she said, when they see all the African runners training together, somehow managing not to get lost in the Broad Cove neighborhood despite never asking for directions. Her husband sometimes jokes about training with them – he’ll be running his 11th Beach to Beacon this year – but they’re so fast, “before he gets his shoelaces on they’re back,” Berman said.

And the neighborhood always loves to see whose runner comes in first. Several years ago, before the Bermans began hosting, she said her kids saw Gilbert Okari, who was staying down the street, coming through the neighborhood after the race. Everyone asked him how he’d done in the race, and Berman laughed as she imitated his Kenyan accent and held up one finger, “Number one!”

Another year, when it was sunny the weekend of the race, she said the family invited a handful of runners who had never been swimming to try out their pool. The visitors were afraid, she said, but were finally decked out in lifejackets and all had a great time splashing around.

“It’s so exciting for the kids,” Berman added. She said they all want to have all their friends over to meet their runner, and spend the year showing off gifts given by their guest. One of her sons, she said, was given an Ethiopia jersey worn in the Olympics – a prize worn often.

To make this year even more special, Berman said, if everything goes as planned and a visa is granted, Birhanu’s wife will be joining him in Cape Elizabeth, and will also run the Beach to Beacon. It will be fun to have a woman, Berman said, because they’ll get to pay attention to the women’s field as well as the men’s, watching from the Fort Williams finish line with the passes they get for being a host family.

And Berman is already thinking about next year. “His mother has something,” she said. They’re not quite sure, based on Birhanu’s broken description, but she said it sounds like cataracts – another easy fix for the host doctor.

“I’m on a mission,” she said, “I want to get her here. We take so for granted that we’ll probably just get (an ailment) fixed, and they just deal with it. If that’s cataracts, we could remove them so darn easily!”

Birhanu will join 6,000 other runners, including defending champions Ed Muge and Edith Masai, both from Kenya. Also running are Kenyan James Kwambai, who earlier this year recorded the third fastest marathon of all time, Kenyan Lineth Chepkurui, the sixth-ranked woman in the world, who has already won four major road races this year, and local favorites Ben True, 23, of North Yarmouth and Sheri Peirs, 38, of Falmouth. Outside of the elite circle, True dominated the men’s division last year while Peirs took second to her running partner, Kristin Barry, who broke the race record in 2008, but will not run this year due to injury.

The 6.2-mile race begins at 8 a.m.; the awards ceremony is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. at Portland Head Light. A Kids Fun Run of age-appropriate distance, held in previous years on Saturday after the conclusion of the Beacon to Beacon, will be held this year on Friday, July 31, at 6 p.m. at Fort Williams. Race-day registration will be available starting at 4:30 p.m. for the kids race, which is open to 1,000 children ages 12 and under.

Sarah Trent can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 108 or

s-ceb2b-072409.jpgDejene Birhanu, an Ethiopian runner who took eighth place in last year’s TD Banknorth Beach to Beacon 10K, will return this year to hosts Jeff, right, and Kerri Berman, second from left, who last year noticed the runner had a droopy eye lid. Jeff Berman, an ophthalmologist, will perform pro bono eye surgery on Birhanu Aug. 3 after both run the Aug. 1 race. Kerri Berman said Birhanu compensates for his eye problem by raising one eyebrow. (Contributed photo)

Sidebar Elements

s-ceb2blogo LOW RES.jpgCape Elizabeth roads along the TD Banknorth Beach to Beach 10K route will begin closing at 6 a.m. on Saturday, Aug. 1, with most remaining closed through 10 a.m. The race begins at Crescent Beach State Park and finishes in Fort Williams, following a route along Route 77, Old Ocean House Road and Shore Road.

Roadside parking along the route is not allowed, and race officials ask that walkers, joggers, spectators and bikers be off the course after 8 a.m. to keep the route clear for the 6,000 runners and elite athletes registered for the 12th annual race.

Spectator parking is available at Fort Williams Park; spectators are advised to arrive before 7:15 a.m. since Shore Road closes at 7:30.

On Saturday, roads will be closed as follows:

• Route 77 from Sprague Hill to Kettle Cove Road, 6 a.m. to 10 a.m.

• Route 77 from Kettle Cove Road to Old Ocean House Road, 7:30 a.m. to 10 a.m.

• Route 77 at Hillway, 7:30 a.m. to 10 a.m.

• Old Ocean House Road, 7:30 a.m. to 10 a.m.

• Shore Road from Key Bank to Fort Williams, 7:30 a.m. to 11 a.m.

• Scott Dyer Road eastbound from Spurwink Avenue, 7:15 a.m. to 7:45 a.m.

• Fowler Road, 7:15 a.m. to 10 a.m.

Crescent Beach State Park, where the race begins, will also be closed to the public from 7:30 a.m. to 10 a.m.