LONG BEFORE Sunday's Berlin marathon, Ethiopia's Haile Gebrselassie had made himself part of any discussion evaluating the greatest distance runners in history. He had twice won the Olympic 10,000-meters (1996 and 2000), set multiple world records at 5,000 meters and 10,000 meters, and in 1999 won the world indoor championship at 1,500 meters. He had demonstrated astounding range, and in his long-distance dotage had become one of the world's best marathoners. Gebrselassie's urgent stride—arms churning, heels brushing against the hem of his shorts, chest thrown forward; the antithesis of the effortless style of many of his East African peers—is an iconic piece of the sport's lineage.
Now there is no discussion; there is only the 34-year-old Gebrselassie. He won Berlin in a marathon world record of 2:04:26, carving 29 seconds from the mark set in 2003 by Kenya's Paul Tergat. Unlike Tergat, who was pushed by countryman Sammy Korir in his record run (also on the flat, lightning-fast Berlin course), Gebrselassie was alone for the final six miles. Yet remarkably he ran negative splits, covering the first half-marathon in 1:02:29, the second in 1:01:57.
Gebrselassie's record translates to an average of just under 4:45 per mile. Shortly after he finished, Gebrselassie took a congratulatory phone call from Tergat and apologized for taking down his rival's record. ("I think I had better conditions than when you ran the record," Gebrselassie said.) One goal remains for Gebrselassie: an Olympic marathon gold medal. Only two men have won golds in the 10,000 and the marathon: Hannes Kolehmainen of Finland and the legendary Emil Zatopek of Czechoslovakia. Beijing's heat, humidity and pollution guarantee a race of attrition, not speed, but Gebrselassie has far outlasted doubt. If he stands on the line, he is the favorite.