Athletics: Drums roll for Gebrselassie road show

Ethiopia's hero will be far from alone on the streets of London
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The Independent Online

It is a long way from Blackheath to The Mall, as the first- footers among the 35,000 entrants for the Flora London Marathon will discover a fortnight today. It is a considerably longer way from the centre of Addis Ababa to the centre of London, though Haile Gebrselassie will find England's capital something of a home from home when he makes his first serious attempt to master the 26 miles 385 yards of the classic marathon distance on the morning of 14 April.

Ever since the race organisers started banging on about the appearance of the world's greatest long-distance runner in what has become the world's greatest long-distance race, the members of the Ezra Ethiopian Traditional Dance Group have been banging on their drums in anticipation at the Elephant and Castle Salvation Army Hall.

"We have been rehearsing every Sunday morning," Yagersew Yayehyrad, the band's leader, said. "To see him running on the streets of London... Oh my God! It will be a beautiful day."

Yayehyrad, 27, came to London from Addis Ababa nine years ago. He is one of the hundreds of Ethiopian political refugees who have settled in the English capital. He lives in Elephant and Castle, works in a souvenir shop at Piccadilly Circus and runs the rhythmic dance group that has brought a small, vibrant corner of Ethiopia to wherever Gebrselassie has run on British soil. His band memorably turned the National Indoor Arena into Addis Ababa for the day when their hero smashed world indoor records at the Birmingham venue in 1998 and 1999.

"What does he mean to us?" Yayehyrad said. "Oh my God! He is everything to us, every-thing. You are very far from your home. You miss everything. When he comes to run here it is like a part of home and a part of you. Sometimes when I see him I want to cry – when you see his pain. But you know he is going to win. He has a little body but a power that nobody can explain.

"And his smile... Oh my God! He runs so hard for so many kilometres and when he finishes we cuddle him and he's happy and smiling. He never says, 'I'm tired, don't touch me'. Every time we play he says, 'Thank you for helping me'." Gebrselassie is likely to be especially grateful for the help two weeks today. Yayehyrad and his band will be playing near the finish, where the slog of pounding 26 miles of English Tarmacadam – plus a hundred or so yards of cobbles – should be taking its toll even on the smooth, high-speed human running machine who has shattered 15 world records, indoors and out, and who comes to the marathon with the most impressive credentials of any runner who has ever tackled the distance. Or, who will be coming back to the marathon, that is.

The 2002 Flora London Marathon has been billed as Gebrselassie's long-awaited marathon debut, but he has been this way once before. Not that the 28-year-old master likes to recall his experience as a 16-year-old novice runner in the annual marathon held in Addis Ababa in memory of Abebe Bikila, the unknown Ethiopian soldier who won the Olympic marathons in Rome in 1960 and in Tokyo in 1964. Ninety-ninth place in a time of 2hr 48min was no mean feat for a teenager running on a hilly course at high altitude, but Gebrselassie still winces at the memory. "It was terrible, really terrible," he said. "As soon as I reached the finish line I could not walk. It was really a very bad moment."

It ought to be different in London in a fortnight's time, when Gebrselassie returns to the marathon with a running CV that includes world titles at every distance from 1500m indoors to the half-marathon outdoors. He has run a mile in 3min 52.39sec, run 5,000m in 12min 39.36sec (a world record), run 10,000m in 26min 22.75sec (a world record) and last Sunday became the latest man to break the hour for the half-marathon distance, 13 miles 192.5 yards.

Indeed, Gebrselassie's winning run in the Lisbon half-marathon was the most promising indication yet of his ability to translate his trailblazing track form into something suitably scorching on the roads in a marathon. It was not just his time – 59min 40sec – that caught the eye but also the manner in which he attacked the race, confidently pushing the pace from start to finish, finishing two seconds clear of the South African Hendrick Ramaala and six seconds ahead of his long-time 10,000m track rival Paul Tergat, who will also be among the formidable field in London two weeks today.

Gebrselassie has clearly benefitted from a winter of specialist marathon training with his compatriot Tesfaye Jifar, who won the New York Marathon in November and who will be alongside him on the start line in London. "I'm not worried about the distance," Gebrselassie said. "I'm feeling fit and strong. I think I could be one of the good marathon runners, but how fast I wouldn't like to say."

There is little doubt that Gebrselassie is capable of threatening the official world record time, 2hr 5min 42sec, held by Khalid Khannouchi, who will also be running on 14 April. In his first major marathon race, though, his priority will be to race and to enjoy a happy home-from-homecoming to the beat of Yagersew Yayehyrad and his Ethiopian Elephant and Castle band.

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