Running, particularly long distance running is one of those unforgiving sports. Unlike, say, tennis and golf, or soccer and other team sports – where sleight of hand or foot can disguise failing power or pace – running is a sport which cannot be faked. There is nowhere to hide.
If you’re not fit, you fail. And even if you are fit, once you start to go downhill it feels, well, it feels like uphill. You can choose your races judiciously, but as you get slower, you cannot fool yourself, for even if the pursuers do not yet overtake, Old Father Time, with his trusty stopwatch is there to remind you.
And ambition can be a cruel master. When Paul Tergat broke the marathon world record, with 2.04.55, in Berlin 2003, it took a while to figure out why he was not elated. It was because pacemaker and pal, Sammy Korir had finished a stride behind him. Tergat wasn’t the only man under 2.05, he hadn’t won by a street, indeed, he had had to work to win by just one second.
Four years later, in 2007, Haile Gebrselassie, the man who had made Tergat’s track career look second-best took the Kenyan’s marathon world record too. On that same Berlin course, he ran close to half a minute faster, with 2.04.26. The following year, again in Berlin, the Ethiopian slashed close to another half minute off the record, with 2.03.59, becoming the only man under 2.04. In the interim, Geb ran 2.04.53 in Dubai 2008. A year later, he won Dubai again, in 2.05.29. He won in Berlin 2009, for the fourth time, in 2.06.08. And now he has won Dubai for a third time, in 2.06.09.
There were good reasons – heat, rain, a back injury – why Haile’s last three marathons were, on average close to two minutes slower than his world record. But there are equally good reasons for thinking that this last record attempt may be a sign of decline. And the first reason was his own demeanour, when your scribe tracked him down several hours after the race in Dubai last Friday.
The smile of greeting was just as broad, and he didn’t look like a man who had thrashed himself around 42.2k, managing to stay ahead of two colleagues, who had caught him after 30k; and who ended up just half a minute behind, his closest pursuers in recent years. But when he was asked for an assessment, the smile was not so broad. It is tempting to say it was tempered by doubt.
He agreed that Chala Dechase (in only his second marathon) had made up ground on him far too quickly. Chala was almost sprinting when he caught Geb approaching 34k. He also maintained that the back injury, provoked by an awkward sleeping position could have forced him out of the race. “I might have dropped out, especially at 30k, I was lucky it was warm here. When the pacemaker left at 30k (32k, actually), I tried to push, but I had no reply. He’s a young boy (Chala), if he’d been more experienced, he would have caught gradually. That was wrong what he did, it was too fast, he should have waited”.
Coincidentally, too fast (at the start) is how Professor Helmut Winter of Humboldt University, Germany characterises Haile’s recent races. Marathon expert Winter, who produced the two fascinating graphs here was in Dubai to see Geb’s latest world record attempt, and says of the second graph, “assume the broken line represents the split needed to run even pace….. The conclusion would be: the 2008WR is a fine race, but for all the other races (Dubai, Berlin2009) this guy (Geb) overpowered himself in the beginning and was lacking substantial reserves in the end. The typical mistake of a BEGINNER!”
(For a breakdown of Geb’s 5k splits, look at the equally interesting piece on The Science of Sport website, www.sportsscientists.com)
Gebrselassie has been written off before, like when he finished third in the world 10,000 metres in Edmonton 2001, his first loss in a 25-lapper in eight years. Or like when he didn’t win the London Marathon in his debut in 2002, or in his two further attempts in London, even dropping out in the latter one. But he came back from Edmonton, and from the London false-start, to set further world records, including eventually the marathon.
But he will be 37 in April. OK, you might say, Carlos Lopes won the Olympic marathon at 37. And Constantina Dita did the same trick at 38. But no one has shown such consistent excellence over such a lengthy period as Gebrselassie, beginning with the world junior 5000/10000 double in 1992, and racking up 27 world records and bests in the 15 years between running 5000m in 12.56.96 in June 1994 in Holland, and the 30k in 1.27.49 that he set during the Berlin Marathon 2009.
He is still adamant he wants to run the Olympic marathon in London 2012, despite his business interests accelerating, eg a new foreign vehicle franchise for Ethiopia, a new hotel complex opening in south Ethiopia in April – friend and former World Cup marathon champion Richard Nerurkar says, “I don’t know how he fits it all in, and trains twice a day”.
Geb’s next race is a half-marathon in New York in March, but he says he has no plans for his next marathon, apart from saying it will probably be in Europe. “I’ve no idea right now. Sometime after September. The Berlin course I like very much. But the big aim is to save my power ‘til London 2012. Until then, two marathons a year, or less. And keep my speed with 10k’s and half-marathons…. As long as I keep my shape”.
He may be suffering the first pangs of sporting mortality, rather later than most of us. But he has already long sewn up the more crucial role – sporting immortality.