All the best athletes learn by experience, and Haile Gebrselassie – whose two Olympic and four world 10,000 metres titles have already vouchsafed a reputation as one of the best ever – is no exception. When he makes his first major marathon appearance at the London event next spring, he will make sure he has enough to eat beforehand.
Although the organisers have put up the best part of $500,000 (£350,000) for him to make his 26 miles 485 yards debut in the capital, they have – strictly speaking – missed their opportunity by 13 years.
In London yesterday to get an early look at the streets where he will challenge a world-class field on 14 April, the 28-year-old Ethiopian recalled his only previous experience of the distance, when, partly to keep his elder brother, Tekeye, company, he took part in the Addis Ababa marathon at the age of 15.
"I found it a bit hard," he said, with a wry grin at his own understatement. "I was very hungry – I didn't eat enough food beforehand because I thought it was an easy race. I was a 1500m runner then..."
He finished 99th, 97 places behind his big brother. "I was exhausted," he said with another dazzling smile. "I looked like it was the end of my life." But his time, 2hr 48min, in the thin air of Addis, gave an indication of the heights to which he might later rise. Heights of another kind made a big impression on the farmer's son that day, however. "I had come from a small town," he said, "and when I ran through Addis I kept looking up at all the tall buildings. There were so many tall buildings."
Marathon No 2 will offer less opportunity for sightseeing as he faces a field packed with talents, including his compatriot Tesfaye Jifar, winner of the recent New York race, and his perennial Kenyan rival Paul Tergat, who finished second on his London debut last year. That the world of running has had to wait so long for Gebrselassie to embrace a distance he always had it in mind to run eventually is not entirely down to him. "At the beginning of my career I wanted to run the marathon. It was not my decision to run the 5,000 and the 10,000. That was down to my brother, Tekeye, and my coach."
Given his domination of those events in the course of the last decade, that hardly looks like a bad call. But his transition is being attended to with great care. Having failed to win the world title for a fifth successive time in Edmonton three months ago, a legacy in part of missing a whole year's racing because of an Achilles injury, Gebrselassie entered and won the World Half Marathon Championships in Bristol eight weeks ago. His victory came after he had tracked Jifar for virtually the whole distance before outsprinting him to finish a second clear. Jifar is still offering the great man assistance as one of his training companions, along with the Olympic bronze medallist Tesfaye Tola. All are entered for London.
"Already I've learned a lot from them," said Gebrselassie, who won the inaugural Great Ethiopian Run in Addis Ababa last Sunday week ahead of a field of more than 10,000. "Although I won our trial before the World Half Marathon Championships I didn't really know what to expect so we worked together as a team, something which is common when representing our country. Maybe in London it will be the same. At the moment I just don't know."
For his part, Jifar believes the benefits of training with Gebrselassie are mutual. "He has helped me become a better runner," said Jifar, who ran a lifetime best of 2hr 6min 49sec in New York, a mark he feels is well within Gebrselassie's reach.
Gebrselassie, sensibly, is avoiding being drawn over what time he might achieve, especially when talk turns to the world best of 2:05.42 held by Khalid Khannouchi. "World records?" he said. "You'll have to wait and see. It's too early to talk like that. Just winning will be hard enough."
Should he manage that task he would be following in the tradition set by one of the other great Ethiopian athletes whose picture is included within the Olympic rings of the main Addis stadium, the double Olympic champion Abebe Bikila.
"I am sure that I can become a successful marathon runner," said the man who has set 15 world records over distances ranging from 3,000 to 10,000m. So are the bookies – he is already 2-1 on for London with William Hill.
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