I was heading out for a nice three mile walk, minding my own business.
That is when it happened, as it always happens.
The foyer of the Radisson Blue Edwardian, which was coursing with runners, and Man City footballers only a few hours ago was quiet.
Jo Pavey, Haile Gebrselassie, Great Run, photo by Dan Vernon Photography for the Great Run Company
Tom Broadbent, Elite Athlete manager of the Great Run Company, the man who assembles the fields for the Great Runs, was gently walking a stroller with his baby boy. Tom said, ” Are your writing about it yet? Haile announced his retirement from competitive racing.”
I was dumbfounded. “When did he do that?”
Tom replied, ” After the race today to the media and the runners. I wish he would have given us some notice, we would like to do something special for him.”
Tom is a good guy, who loves the sport. Like many of us, we did not want to see Haile call it quits like this….but perhaps, that is what he wanted.
So many stories about Haile, I do not know where to start. I will focus on a few tonight, or this morning. I am sitting in Doha, and it is 5 am in the morning. I slept the entire flight from Frankfurt, walked, and am having issues sleeping.
The first time I saw Haile Gebrselassie run it was in 1995 at the World Championships in Goteborg. He won the 10,000 meters, and did it with a heat and a final. Haile had come into most of our worlds with his gold medal in the 1993 World Champs at 10,000 meters, and his silver in the 5,000 meters.
Gebrselassie, Bekele, Sihane, World Champs 2003, Paris photo by PhotoRun.net
I remember the 10,000 meters at the Atlanta Olympics. The hard track, prepared for sprint racing, was terrible to the feet of distance runners. The story is told that when Haile took his shoes off after winning the 10,000 meters, blood came out of the blisters from the bitterly hard surface. Gebrselassie pulled out of the Olympic Games 5,000 meters and lost the Weltklasse 5,000 meters right afterwards, still wincing a bit from those blisters.
That Haile Gebrselassie won four gold medals in World Championships 10,000 meters and two in Olympic 10,000 meters is just the numbers. The 10,000 meters in both Atlanta and Sydney were epic. The 10,000 meters in Sydney was decided in the last meters, and Haile and Paul Tergat were only separated by .09 seconds. Remarkably, the 10,000 meters was closer than the 100 meter finish in Sydney.
Paul Tergat, he of the long loping stride, ran 26.8 for the last 200 meters to try and defeat Haile Gebrselassie. Haile would have none of that. The little Emperor ran Tergat down, in 25.4 for the last 200 meters, taking the race at the finish. Watch the film. You will let out a gasp, considering the blistering battle that Tergat and Gebrselassie, who are great friends, put on for all of us to stand afterwards, amazed and bewildered. George Hirsch, former RW publisher told me years ago that, in his mind, that 10,000 meters in Sydney was the greatest 10,000 meter race ever.
I tend to agree.
Haile Gebrselassie, Berlin 2007, photo by PhotoRun.net
Yet, the 10,000 meters that affected me most was one he lost.
In 2003, in Paris, in the Stade de France during the World Championships, Haile and Kenenisa Bekele dueled to the near death, as Kenenisa Bekele and Haile Gebrselassie ran 12:57.8 for the final 5,000 meters of the race, as Bekele took the gold and Haile the silver. The last mile was run in just under four minutes. I remember watching the race and wondering who could hold on. Only those two. In 2004, Haile lost three weeks of training with his achilles acting up, and ran the final, loosing any chance of a medal, as his federation virtually roped him into running. Haile finished fifth, and considering, again, the pain he was experiencing, one wonders how the little Emperor finished at all.
Twenty-seven world records in his career. In 2006, Mike Long, the late, great elite coordinator for Rock N Roll, brought me into Arizona to meet Haile and interview him. The day started around 5.30 am as Haile played pool a bit with some friends as he prepared for a hard workday: he was going for the 15k, 10 mile, 20k, half marathon and 25k World bests on the road.
I was on the elite truck, writing down splits, and watching as Haile took the 10 mile best, 20k best and of course the 25k world record. For the next two hours plus, I recorded questions and answers as Haile and I chatted. And that is what it was, an amazing chat, covering running, business and politics. Haile was pretty wound up: ” Gebrselassie can not run a World record every time, fans think that I can do that. I remember my first World record, it was very, very tough.”
What I was taken by, was this man with a huge heart and obviously a running genius, was, simply a man, with a gift, who understood his gift and responsibility better than anyone.
Haile Gebrselassie, after his sixth place in Beijing, photo by PhotoRun.net
In 2001, in Edmonton, Haile was not at the top of his game. In the 10,000 meters, for 24.5 laps, Haile held off the field and when Charles Kamathi went by him, Kamathi looked back, incredulously, expecting a charge. Haile smiled with his silver: he had run only one race in the buildup, a 3,000 meters, as his achilles had been painful to walk with, much less race. He knew he was lucky. The late James Dunaway reminded me that day that Haile would be a fine poker player. He sure had gambled in Edmonton, and won.
Jos Hermans, Haile’s manager, with Haile at Tokyo 2012, photo by PhotoRun.net
The marathon took six races for Haile to feel good. He told me that he purchased a treadmill and watched himself running in the mirror to change his stride. He wanted to be better and better he did. He set world records in the marathon, in 2007, with his 2:04.26, and in 2008, with his 2:03.59.
In 2010, Haile announced his retirement after dropping out of NYC marathon. He was crestfallen, but twittered out later he wanted to run in London in 2012, so he would not quit yet. In February 2012, Haile ran 2:08.17 at the Tokyo Marathon.
Haile in the maddening crowd, Hengelo 2012, photo by PhotoRun.net
The word got out that Haile was going to run the 10,000 meters in Hengelo, at the FBK Hengelo Games. I jumped on a plane and headed to see what was becoming the unofficial Ethiopian 10,000 meter Trials. Haile was in the race until the very last lap, when Tareke Bekele, younger brother to Kenenisa Bekele, Haile’s nemesis on the track in his later years, sprinted away, running 54 seconds for the last lap. Haile ran a 60 second last lap on the track he had set four world records on, but he finished sixth, in 27:20.59.
In the press room afterwords, Haile to the media that he would be no longer racing on the track, ” trading a track suit for a business suit” is how I noted it in my notes.
Runners are vain, no matter what their shapes and size. Haile Gebrselassie is human, just like the rest of us, except he held 27 or 28, depending on your expert, different world records.
I recall an adidas track day, a media event in the past few years. Haile was showing a new technology from adidas and he was running miles on a treadmill.
Now, note that he had already run 12 miles that morning.
He started with a 4:40 mile, then, ran a 4:20 mile, then decided to see how fast he could run, and he was on a 4:12 pace, when Spencer Nel, the adidas global athletics manager, stopped him.
Haile was as pumped as we were to watch him, but Spencer knew better-Haile was not getting injured on his watch.
At the Manchester Great Run on Sunday, May 10, 2015, Haile Gebrselassie ran a 30:05 for the 10k, finishing sixteenth in the elite race, then ran a wave in 36 minutes for a second 10k and was about to start another, when he spoke to the media and assembled runners and gave his bombshell.
I texted Spencer Nel of adidas, wanting to get his thoughts. Spencer texted back: ” Amazing athlete, amazing man, wonderful ambassador of sport and his country.”
I could not say it any better. Spencer Nel, a long time adidas sports marketing professional, and I had many discussions on where to put an icon like Haile.
Haile in Vienna, 2013, talking about his sponsor, photo by PhotoRun.net
Haile Gebrselassie is, to me, like an e.e. cummings poem, “reeking with pure”. Haile is real, perhaps too real, which is why we love him, and treasure him, and respect him, all because the little Emperor, for those 27 or 28 times, came closer to perfection in running, and sport, than most of us even dream of.
And then, he came back to earth, and spoke to us.
And, we listened.
As we always will.