Over the years, as he has amassed two Olympic and four world titles at 10,000 metres, Haile Gebrselassie has grown used to being asked one insistent question before any important race: will you break the world record?
It is the question which distinguishes the sport's true élite from the mass of high achievers, and although the little Ethiopian's usual response is to shrug his shoulders and give the dazzling grin that so often transforms his face, he is approaching his marathon debut in Sunday's London race with such exactitude that no other conclusion can be drawn.
Through his manager, Jos Hermens, Gebrselassie has asked the London organisers to instruct pacemakers to reach the halfway point in 62 minutes 30 seconds, a minute faster than any other such request in the 20-year history of the event. When Khalid Khannouchi ran the current world marathon best of 2hr 05min 42sec in Chicago three years ago, the field passed the halfway mark in 63min 07sec, more than half a minute slower than Gebrselassie's projected time. The London course is traditionally faster over the second half.
"It's difficult to say this time, or this pace," Gebrselassie said. "But of course I think about winning the race, and I can say I am ready to do something special. I would rather be fast from the beginning – then I can keep the pace going until the end."
What strengthens the 28-year-old's confidence as he prepares for a new experience in his running career is the way his training has been going in recent months. The Achilles tendon injury that prevented him making his long-awaited London marathon debut a year ago has cleared up, and he has been undergoing runs of up to 50km around his native city of Addis Ababa, 2,500 feet above sea level, in company with two outstanding Ethiopian marathon runners in Tesfaye Jifar and Tesfaye Tola, who have respective bests of 2:06.49 and 2:06.57.
"They have told me many things about running the marathon," Gebrselassie said. 'And I have helped them with their speed. If they win, I will accept it, and if I win, they will accept it."
Proof of Gebrselassie's condition came less than three weeks ago when, at short notice, he entered the Lisbon half-marathon and won in a time of 59min 40sec, defeating a field that included his perennial rival at cross country and on the track, Kenya's Paul Tergat. And that was after Hermens had told him: "don't give everything".
Although Gebrselassie is joint favourite to win Sunday's event at 2-1 with the Moroccan who is seeking a third London victory, Abdelkader El Mouaziz, he knows he will be surrounded on the day by some of the world's finest runners, including Khannouchi – who has recovered from injuries to take part in what will be only his sixth marathon – and Tergat.
Two years ago, Tergat and Gebrselassie finished the Olympic 10,000m like two sprinters, with the Ethiopian winning by a fraction of a second in what was one of the greatest races in the history of the Games.
On the track, Gebrselassie has always had the edge over the Kenyan, but Tergat has been the master on cross country courses, equalling his fellow Kenyan John Ngugi's record of six world titles while Gebrselassie has never managed better than third place.
Now, over 26.2 miles on the road, the come together once again. Gebrselassie, however, was unwilling to be drawn into speculation over his rivalry.
"Tergat ran a wonderful marathon last year," he said. "But I don't think about any special person to attack in this marathon. I will be trying to keep up with who will run in the front. If Tergat will be there I will follow him. But the Ethiopians are very strong in this race, and there are athletes from Morocco and Kenya who are top performers. This is the marathon. When you run the marathon you never know who will be fastest."
Perfectly true. But the bookies are not the only ones who will fail to be surprised if it turns out to be Haile Gebrselassie.Reuse content