He said he was sorry. Last Thursday in the unending purple daylight of a Norwegian summer evening, 25-year-old Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia ran the seventh-fastest 3,000-meter race in history. He had recklessly chased the two-year-old world record of Kenya's Daniel Komen until less than two laps remained. Then, after measuring his pain and his waning pace, he allowed three pursuing Kenyans to pass him while he gathered himself to blister the final 250 meters and win in 7:27.42, a time that would have broken the world record just four years ago but on this night fell seven seconds short. Against a 22-man field that was deeper in world-class talent than the NBA is in big egos, Gebrselassie turned a failed, agonizing record attempt into a macho, just-win sprint and survived.
For this he felt the need to apologize. He stood on the victory podium and said to the crowd of more than 18,000 that was stuffed into Oslo's ancient Bislett Stadium, "I am sorry. I will come back next year and try again." The fans did not laugh, they applauded, as if to say, Damn right you will.
This is where distance running finds itself, at a mind-bending intersection of talent, innovation and courage that has transformed the unthinkable into the expected. In the last four years the world record in every men's race from 3,000 meters (slightly less than two miles) to 10,000 meters (6.2 miles) has been destroyed. The records in these five events—including the steeplechase—have been broken a total of 22 times. Leading the way have been two of the most stunning talents ever to wear spikes, Gebrselassie and Komen. The simplest sport of all (first to the finish wins) has skipped evolutionary steps, raising eyebrows and suspicions. Nothing suggests that the record-breaking is soon to finish, other than common sense, which has become unreliable. "You'd have to think that these guys are approaching the limits of human endeavor," says Brendan Foster, a British runner who held the world record at 3,000 meters from 1974 to '78. "Of course, we've been saying that for a while, haven't we?"
In the United States, this revolution has gone largely unnoticed. Komen, Gebrselassie and the other record-breakers are distant waifs with odd names, running overseas during the American afternoon and appearing in microscopic type in the next day's newspaper. They are running extraordinarily fast, yet their times are meaningless to a mass audience of mainstream U.S. sports fans that views elite distance running as fast jogging. News flash: These are not fun runs.
Germany's Dieter Baumann, the 1992 Olympic 5,000-meter gold medalist and along with American Bob Kennedy one of two non-Africans to run under 13 minutes for 5,000 meters, puts pace in layman's terms. "If you can't run 100 meters in a little more than 15 seconds, and I doubt if many people can," Baumann says, "then you can't run with me for 5,000 meters [3.1 miles], because that's what I'm doing. I'm running 50 100-meter sprints at just over 15 seconds each." How does it feel to push your body this hard? Says Kennedy, "When I'm running at these paces, I'm on such an edge that if I went one half-second faster per lap, I'd feel like I was going to collapse. From 800 meters on, it hurts. A lot. It's nothing like what most people think of as distance running. It's basically sprinting."
The wave of extraordinary distance performances began in August 1994, when miler Noureddine Morceli of Algeria stepped up in distance and ran 7:25.11 for 3,000 meters (roughly the equivalent of an 8:01 two-mile), breaking by nearly four seconds the world record held by Moses Kiptanui of Kenya. In the late '80s, Said Aouita of Morocco had become the first runner to break 7:30 for the 3,000 and 13 minutes for the 5,000, but Morceli's time was the first to drop jaws.
The performances of Gebrselassie and Komen have dropped them much farther. Since '94, Gebrselassie has broken the 5,000 and 10,000 records seven times, and in June he took back the 5,000 mark (12:39.36) from Komen and the 10,000 mark (26:22.75) from Kenya's Paul Tergat. Komen, 22, holds the 3,000 record and is the only man in history to have broken eight minutes for two miles (7:58.61; each of his miles was faster than Roger Bannister's legendary first sub-four). "You have many runners racing very fast right now," says Baumann. "But really you have two runners who are pulling the rest along."
Gebrselassie and Komen were both raised at altitude in African cultures with rich distance-running heritages. Both men have dry, almost clinical approaches to running times that others consider unfathomable.
The similarities stop there. Gebrselassie, 25, is 5'4" and barrel-chested, effusive and quick to laugh. Although he is better suited to longer distances than Komen, he possesses the most lethal, sudden, change-of-gears finishing kick in the sport. Komen is 5'7" and slender, guarded and evasive. His flowing, consistent stride makes him a threat to someday hold records at distances from 1,500 to 10,000 meters, a range of domination that has never been approached. "He's just begun to explore his abilities," says training partner Martin Keino, the son of former Kenyan great Kip Keino.
Gebrselassie and Komen are cordial to each other, but they're not friends. Kenyan, Ethiopian and Moroccan distance runners are fierce rivals, like Blue Devils and Tar Heels or Seminoles and Gators. The athletic enmity between Komen and Gebrselassie runs especially deep. In a 5,000-meter showdown last August in Zurich, Gebrselassie let Komen lead for nearly the entire race before exploding past him in the final stretch. "Daniel was disappointed," says Komen's agent and coach, Kim McDonald. "If all Haile wanted to do was win the race, he did absolutely the right thing. It would have been sporting for him to lead a lap or two." Largely for this reason they haven't raced each other since and might not meet this summer.