Haile Gebrselassie looked out from the boardroom of the Gateshead Hilton on Friday lunchtime with a quizzical look forming on his ever-smiling face. "Yes, it does look the same," he said, starting to see the coat-hanger frame of the Tyne Bridge in the same light as its Sydney Harbour counterpart. "Very similar."
It was one of those Dark Side of the Moon moments when Time goes whistling through your head. You know: "And then one day you find 10 years have got behind you. No one told you when to run. You missed the starting gun..."
Ten years had got behind us since Gebrselassie stood on the other side of the world looking up at Sydney's landmark crossing and telling The Independent on Sunday that he would be missing the starting gun in Tyneside's annual running jamboree. "I'm sorry but I won't be coming to England to run across your bridge," he said back then, speaking at a press conference that had been called towards the end of the Sydney Olympics to announce his participation in the Great North Run.
Brendan Foster and his fellow Great North organisers had already conducted a publicity photo shoot of Gebrselassie running across the Harbour Bridge, which, like the Tyne version, was modelled on Hell Gate Bridge in New York and built by Dorman, Long and Company, a Middlesbrough steel firm.
The 2000 Great North Run, scheduled for October that year, was to have been the gateway to a new direction for the little Ethiopian who – at the age of 27, with 15 world records on the track, indoors and out, plus two Olympic titles and four World Championship crowns at 10,000m – already had a big claim to being the greatest distance runner of all time. The half-marathon on Tyneside was supposed to have been the first step on the road towards the start of a marathon-running career the following spring.
Instead, with the Great North deal done, the publicity shots in the can, and the press conference called, Gebrselassie took a step back, reassessed his running life, and decided to keep it on the track for a little while longer.
There was a practical reason for the change of heart; a bursa problem on his right foot precluded the possibility of taking to the roads in the near future. However, having emerged victorious from the track race of the Sydney Games, his epic 10,000m duel with his great rival Paul Tergat of Kenya, Gebrselassie was hungry for more. "I still want to run 5,000m and 10,000m on the track," he said. "I know I can still run faster."
Ten years on, as the Ethiopian phenomenon with the beautifully smooth running style prepares to finally cross the Tyne Bridge as a 37-year-old Great North Run debutant this morning, Gebrselassie has not got any faster than the world 5,000m and 10,000m records he held at the start of the millennium (12min 39.36sec and 26min 22.75sec), both since eclipsed by his younger compatriot, Kenenisa Bekele. He has, though, taken his tally of world records, garnered over the course of 14 years, up to 27.
Having finally turned to the challenge of the marathon in 2002, he has twice broken the world record for the distance, clocking 2hr 04min 26sec in Berlin in 2007 and setting the existing mark of 2:03.59 in the German capital in 2008. That is an extraordinary feat of speed endurance: 26.2 consecutive miles at an average of 4min 44sec per mile.
So Gebrselassie lines up next to the Town Moor in Newcastle this morning as not just the No 1 contender in a race which has attracted an entry of 54,000 but as indisputably the greatest distance runner of all time. There is not much more that the imperious East African known as the Little Emperor has left to accomplish in his chosen domain but winning the Olympic marathon is one of them, a target he intends to achieve at the age of 39 at London 2012. Winning the world's biggest half-marathon is another.
"Brendan Foster has shown me the book telling the history of the Great North Run," Gebrselassie said. "My name is not in it and I want to put it there. Not just for this year; for the next two, three years, believe me. I will try to do it on Sunday but this is sport. The good thing about sport is you do not know the winner before the race."
Gebrselassie, who makes his debut in the New York marathon on 7 November, has been a winner in all three races he has contested in 2010: the Dubai Marathon (2hr 06min 09sec), the Madrid 10km road race (28min 56sec) and the Great Manchester 10km (28:02). His rivals on the road from Newcastle to South Shields today include Jaouad Gharib, the two-time world marathon champion from Morocco; world half-marathon bronze medallist Dathan Ritzenhein of the United States; the Kenyan Kiplimo Kimutai; and another Moroccan, Abderrahime Bouramdane.
There is also someone in the field who, like Gebrselassie, has held the world 5,000m record. "Really?" Gebrselassie said, clearly surprised. At the age of 79, Sir Chris Chataway will be attempting to beat 80 per cent of the Great North Run field. "He's here?" Gebrselassie said, that quizzical look back on his face again. "Oh, I see. He's going to run here ... well, we'll see who's going to win."
The pair met when Sir Chris and his son Adam were in Addis Ababa three years ago, planning Vicky's Water Project (www.vickyswater project.com) – a venture set up in memory of Adam's fiancée Vicky Buchanan, who was killed in a road accident in 2006, and which was completed in April this year, bringing fresh water to 20,000 Ethiopians. "Haile kindly invited us for lunch and he gave us a bit of help," Sir Chris said. "He wore a little blue ribbon for Vicky's Water Project when he ran in the Berlin Marathon that year.
"He is an amazing chap, absolutely astonishing. I'd just love to see him winning in 2012. That would be tremendous, it really would."
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