Gebrselassie reminds us once again of his greatness
Posted: Sunday August 5, 2007 2:23PM; Updated: Tuesday August 7, 2007 5:58PM
See his distinctive stride and you could read a chapter of Haile Gebrselassie's life, the telltale peek at the world's greatest living distance runner, blowing through Central Park, then Times Square and the streets of Gotham as the Ethiopian legend ran away with the New York Half Marathon on Sunday morning.
The man is light of feet, a skimming stone along the water. Does he even need to touch the ground or might he just float? His chin is straight, only moving laterally if he must espy his opposition. Otherwise, there is no excess energy. How does the bobbing and bouncing not shake his core? How can a spinal column stay so straight when limbs are moving so purposefully?
And then it strikes you. Even at 34, his left arm still has a perceptive, if subtle, flap. The form flaw is out of place. Compact at 5-feet-4, 117 pounds, he looks like the Greek statue with the missing ear. What, pray tell, is wrong? "My books," he tells you. "I needed them for school, so I carried them in my left arm."
The distance was convenient then: 10 kilometers from the farmhouse in Arssi where a single father raised 10 Gebrselassie children to the school where a 16-year old ran his first race, 1,500 meters against older, more accomplished boys. "People were laughing because I was sprinting at the beginning," Gebrselassie remembers. "Look at this boy. He's going to stop soon."
He still hasn't. For his victory that day, Gebrselassie won shorts and a singlet. Retail value: $1, by his estimation. He won certificates for his next two victories. Medals trophies and six-figure appearance fees were still off in the distance.
He has run as long and fast as anyone, setting 22 world records, winning eight world and Olympic medals, including six golds. In the debate among running aficionados to name history's greatest distance runner, Gebrselassie's name stands next to Paavo Nurmi, the Norwegian legend from the 1920s, and Emil Zatopek, the great Czech from the '50s. Neither has Gebrselassie's blistering kick. At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, he outlasted Kenya's Paul Tergat in the 10,000 meters, running the last 200 meters in 26 seconds. Who else on the planet could run 1,500 meters in 3:31.76 in 1998 and win the Berlin Marathon last year in 2:05.56? Despite his sublime resume, Gebrselassie had rarely run in the United States and never in New York City until Sunday.
"When I run in Ethiopia, I look out and see eucalyptus trees and rivers," he said this week, "I wanted to experience New York, to look up and see buildings."
His race began in Central Park for an initial 10 kilometer (six-mile) loop during which Gebrselassie ran stride-for-stride with Somali-born U.S. runner Abdi Abdirahman and Kenya's Robert Cheruiyot, the three-time Boston Marathon champ.
The fast pace played into the hands of Gebrselassie, the two-time Olympic champ at 10,000 meters who once held world records at both the 5K and 10K distances. "I don't know why they pushed," Gebrselassie said afterwards. "I thought they'd stay back. I am a 10,000-meter runner. But they pushed, so I said, 'OK, thank you, you are running my pace. Good-bye.'"
As the runners left the park and headed onto the streets of midtown Manhattan, Abdirahman made a bold push to build a lead. The move dropped Cheruiyot, but not Gebrselassie, who then shot into the lead and never lost it. "In running, you try to recover your surge," Abdirahman explained. "I was trying to build back up and Haile didn't give me that chance. He went right past me and the race was over."