Spare a thought for the coldness of the long-distance runners

He grew up in the 20-degree heat of Ethiopia. But triple Olympic gold winner Kenenisa Bekele will take on an icy cross-country course in Edinburgh tomorrow. First, he speaks to Simon Turnbull

Saturday 09 January 2010 01:00

It was a strange meeting. Once upon a time the pupils at Tynecastle High School were taught English by Wilfred Owen. Yesterday, on their first day at their rebuilt, state-of the art educational complex, some of the Tynecastle class of 2010 were treated to a lesson by the athlete whose fluid, high-speed running style is sheer poetry in motion.

On Tuesday afternoon, Kenenisa Bekele, the diminutive king of distance running – triple Olympic gold medallist, five times world outdoor track champion, 11 times world cross-country champion – had the afternoon sun on his back as he trained in temperatures of "16 to 20C" near his home in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. Three days on, accompanied by a quartet of fellow Olympians and a selection of hardy Tynecastle pupils, he was picking his way around a school running track covered with a six-inch blanket of snow, with the mercury down to minus 10C in the west end of Scotland's capital city.

Edinburgh? More like Edinbrrr. And it could be chillier still today, with icy winds expected to confront Bekele (below) and his rivals in the snow at the Bupa Great Edinburgh International Cross-country meeting across town at Holyrood Park. "For me, it is not a problem," the Ethiopian said, after finishing his gentle training session with a friendly snowball fight. "I have run in the snow once before, in Newcastle seven years ago. That was the first time I had even seen snow. I felt the cold more then. This time, I have experience of it. It is easier for me now."

It was easy enough for Bekele in 2003, when the televised New Year cross-country event was held down the A1 at the snow-covered Exhibition Park in Newcastle. An emerging 20-year-old at the time, he made light of the Arctic conditions, speeding imperiously to victory. It was the same at Holyrood two years ago, when the course was rutted with frozen ice – and indeed in 2007, when gale force winds whipped up. Even the meteorological extremes of the Great British winter couldn't beat the remarkable Bekele.

It was on the mudbath of the Wellington Hippodrome racecourse in Ostend in 2001 that he first emerged as a force of athletic nature, winning the junior race at the World Cross-country Championships. Since December of that year, the little Ethiopian has been beaten just once in a cross-country race. On that occasion, the conditions got the better of Bekele, though not the kind he will encounter in the 9km men's race in the shadow of Arthur's Seat today. It was the stifling 33C heat and 73 per cent humidity that caused him to wilt while holding what looked to be an unassailable lead in the 2007 World Cross-country Championships, held on the shores of the Indian Ocean at Mombasa Golf Club in Kenya.

"I think it is better to run in these conditions," Bekele said yesterday, nodding towards the white stuff. "It was very tough in Mombasa. I collapsed there. I would rather run in the snow here."

Still, Bekele has won world and Olympic titles in steaming, pressure-cooker conditions: the 10,000m at the World Championships in Osaka in 2007, the 5,000m and the 10,000m at the Olympics in Beijing in 2008. He has won World Cross-country titles in the mud, rain and sun. He has also beaten the rest of the world on the boards, having captured the world indoor 3,000m crown in Moscow in 2006. Just as much as Usain Bolt, Bekele can claim to be an athletic phenomenon – but a phenomenon for all seasons, not just for the summer. The 5ft 4in Ethiopian might not be as big a global figure as the 6ft 5in Jamaican, but his dominance of the longer distances has been as huge as Bolt's of the shorter distances. Even more so, if anything.

Like the beanpole sprinter, Bekele achieved a golden double at the Olympics in Beijing in 2008 and at the World Championships in Berlin last summer, proving a class apart in the 5,000m and 10,000m on both occasions. He has been the unchallenged world record holder at the two distances for some time now – his 5,000m time, 12 min 37.35sec, has stood since May 2004; his 10,000m mark, 26min 17.53sec, has been in the books since August 2005. Oh yes, and at the age of 27, he is still awaiting his first defeat in a 10,000m track race.

And yet, while the world goes mad every time Bolt toes the start line, Bekele goes about his business with a minimum of attendant fuss. "Everyone wants to see something new," the quietly spoken East African said, reflecting on the contrast. "The world has only seen him achieving what he has for a short time, for two years. I achieved many things before Usain Bolt. Maybe people got tired of looking at me because of this. They want to see new achievements, new people. It's normal. Maybe after a few years of Usain Bolt people will look to someone else.

"Also, we are from different countries, different situations. The world I come from is completely different. Whatever... It doesn't matter to me. I am happy with my performances, with what I am achieving."

And with good reason, too. The peerless Bekele has won a gold medal at every outdoor global championship – Olympic Games or World Championships – since 2003. The Lightning Bolt has a long way to go to match that kind of streak.

Survival of the fittest? When extreme weather cross-country

*"A Grim Survival Test," the headline in Athletics Weekly called it. And according to Brendan Foster, a veteran of the English national cross-country championship race at Sutton Coldfield in 1972, "Runners everywhere still talk about that race in awed tones, like old soldiers recalling a battle long ago."

The nine-mile event was already under way when Arctic conditions suddenly descended on the field of 1,000 club runners at Sutton Park. "Our limbs were gripped by an icy numbness, with muscles almost refusing to work," Foster recalled. The Olympic 10,000m bronze medallist, who will be a member of the BBC television commentary team in snowbound Edinburgh today, was the 14th of 877 freezing foot soldiers who made it to the finish line.

*Once upon a time cross-country running was a summer Olympic sport. It may well have remained so had it not been for the Parisian heatwave that struck the 1924 race, sending the temperature rising to 45C. Only 15 of the 39 starters managed to finish. The rest, suffering from heat stroke and dehydration, ran themselves into a state of collapse. The legendary Finn Paavo Nurmi was a comfortable winner (below, leading).

Several others collapsed on the track within sight of the finish line at the Stade Colombes and late into the evening members of the Red Cross were searching the course for missing runners. Cross-country fell by the Olympic wayside thereafter.

*The British press corps turned out in force for the 1992 World Cross-country Championships in Boston, in anticipation of another world-beating performance by Liz McColgan, six months on from the Scot's world championship 10,000m win in the heat and humidity of Tokyo Tokyo. Instead, they ended up acclaiming the emergence of a new British golden girl: Paula Radcliffe. With Franklin Park covered in snow and temperatures down to minus 10C, McColgan struggled home 41st in the senior women's race.

The 18-year-old Radcliffe revelled in the conditions, skating to victory in the junior women's race ahead of China's Wang Junxia. "I've always loved running in snow," she said. "I was born in a blizzard."

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