Gebrselassie discusses the future of Ethiopian marathon-running
Haile Gebrselassie once said that “a day without running is like a day without eating.” He will continue to run as a hobby but on Sunday, the Emperor called time on an unmatched career in terms of versatility, longevity and dominance.
As Gebrselassie steps aside, the depth of Ethiopian marathon-running has never been better. For so long the domain of the Kenyans, the Ethiopian women nearly swept the board this spring with wins in Dubai, Tokyo, Paris, Prague and most notably in London, when Tigist Tufa upset the much-vaunted ‘Fantastic Four’ Kenyans.
Their male counterparts have held their own this year – most notably with a 1-2-3 in the London Marathon – but it was Ethiopia’s day in Boston, with Lelisa Desisa pulling away from Yemane Adhane on the downhill section towards Boylston Street to regain his title.
Desisa burst onto the scene two years ago with a sub-2:05 debut in the Dubai Marathon but whereas many of his compatriots fade back into obscurity after setting fast times out of nowhere on the manicured Dubai course, Desisa has gone from strength to strength.
“Desisa runs both mentally and physically. I’ve seen him race many times and he’s really very smart,” said Gebrselassie, who still holds the Ethiopian marathon record with 2:03:59.
Desisa has come within a minute of Gebrselassie’s national record with 2:04:45 but the 1996 and 2000 Olympics 10,000m champion thinks that Desisa, the reigning world silver medallist at the marathon, is better suited to racing than time-trialing.
“He’s very good when the race is more tactical. That’s why he won a race like Boston,” said Gebrselassie, who isn’t sure if Desisa is the guy to break his national record.
“In terms of time, I don’t know exactly what he’s going to do but if he’s strong enough to win Boston, then it’s not difficult to run a good time but don’t forget to win the race and run fast, it’s a very different thing but you never know.”
Ethiopia churns out just as many world-class marathon-runners as the Kenyans these days. The talent-pool back home is enormous – and seemingly replenishable – but Gebrselassie is concerned about the individual development of some of the star runners.
While the rest of the world marvelled, Gebrselassie said it “shocked him a lot” when he heard that Tsegaye Mekonnen won the Dubai Marathon last January in a world junior record of 2:04:32 aged 18.
“It was a big mistake to allow him to run that marathon,” said Haile without any hesitation. And he speaks from experience as well.
“I ran a marathon when I was 15 [Addis Ababa in 1988] and I almost stopped running after that marathon. I could not walk for a week. But to run a marathon – a boy who is 18 years old, what can you say? Is it for money? I don’t know.
“You can run just run one marathon successfully – two or three maybe – but after that [Dubai] marathon, is he doing well?” Haile asked rhetorically.
For the record, Mekonnen has run three marathons since then, and failed to finish in two of them.
Gebrselassie acknowledges the lack of money in the 10,000m – not to mention the lack of opportunities to run it – are just some of the reasons why runners are turning to the marathon at an earlier age.
But while the disparity has admittedly widened, Haile notes that marathon runners were still earning much more than the track specialists when he started racing internationally in the early 1990s.
However, he wishes runners would employ a policy of patience, and urges coaches to “be careful” in handling their athletes.
“What is important is for coaches to train them and to allow them to run in competition according to their age. When you run the marathon, it’s such a hard surface. It’s not like cross country, it’s a hard surface,” said Gebrselassie, who made his professional marathon debut in 2002.
“I know athletics, I’ve been in this sport for over 25 years internationally and I know what is important for athletes.
“At the end of the day, it’s not the technology, it’s the nature; you cannot hide from nature. That’s why many athletes run fast nowadays because they start the marathon at the early age.
“They might run 2:03 at the age when I was running my world records at 5000m and 10,000m in 1998 but the question is how long will they keep running?
“I ran most of my marathon records at the age of 30 and over. I wish others would follow this course but what can you do? What can you say?”