x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Marathon man is on a million dollars if he beats his best

Athlete Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia holds the world record in the marathon but is hoping to beat his time in the Dubai Marathon.

Haile Gebrselassie winning the Dubai Marathon last year in a time of 2hr 05min 29sec.
Haile Gebrselassie winning the Dubai Marathon last year in a time of 2hr 05min 29sec.

Haile Gebrselassie is not a man easily annoyed. If he were, he no doubt would have been riled when asked, for the third consecutive year, if he will break his own marathon world record while running on the streets of Dubai.

The 36-year-old Ethiopian, considered by most experts to be the greatest distance runner in history, has been asked the same question since 2008, when he first took part in the Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon. His answer? "If everything is perfect." His easy personal manner is somewhat deceiving. Gebrselassie, a fierce and unrelenting competitor, has his eyes fixed on the US$1 million (Dh3.76m) prize to be awarded by Dubai Holding for a world record in the event.

Like many of the thousands preparing to line up outside the Westin hotel for the start of the race on Friday, he is pursuing a personal best albeit his personal bests are also world bests and has been training especially hard the past few months to get it. The two-time Olympic champion in the 10km run has twice set the marathon world record, obliterating his own mark by almost half a minute when he ran 2hr03min59sec at the 2008 Berlin Marathon.

Another world record over the 42.2km distance would instantly become his most heralded personal achievement in the eyes of the running world. But Gebrselassie insists he does not concern himself with others' expectations. "I don't feel any pressure," he says while driving home from an evening run in a forest near his home in Addis Ababa. "At the moment my focus is just the speed work. You have to push just a little bit. The most important thing is that on the day of the competition everything has to be perfect."

Perfection includes the weather. Last year's Dubai event was run in a downpour that destroyed any chance of a world record, but when Gebrselassie still sailed past the finishing line first in 2hr05min29sec, just 90 seconds off his world record, it left observers wondering what kind of time he might have clocked on a dry course. He wants to do better this year and his training has been going well, he says. That's a good omen for the event, which is run on a course that allows for the possibility of a very fast time.

"You can run very good there," he says. "It is flat and nice and every year the organisation just gets better. It keeps improving." The horizontal nature of the Dubai layout compares with the uneven nature of the famed Boston Marathon course, which includes the grinding slope known as Heartbreak Hill that has ended many a runner's dreams. The Boston record is 3min15sec off the world standard set in Berlin, an age by marathon standards.

Having completed the most difficult part of his training at the start of last week, Gebrselassie is now focusing on some light speed work and relaxing. His carbohydrate-heavy diet, necessary to keep glycogen stores up for race day, belies his lean, 58kg frame, which he says will drop 4kg between the start and finish lines. "I eat a lot of carbohydrates and I don't care too much about protein, just a little protein," he says. "I eat the right foods. I know what I need for a marathon or for a 10,000-metre race." Gebrselassie arrived in Dubai yesterday. He says he plans some "small runs" on the treadmill at his hotel before race morning but will not venture on any outdoor routes. The evening before the race, he says, will not include a heavy meal, and on race morning "just something light, like bread".

An action film and some traditional Ethiopian music "I don't like slow music" will be enough to see him through until it is time to pull on his adiZero adios running shoes and hit the streets of Dubai. When it is over he hopes for a chance to absorb some local colour by visiting the Burj Khalifa before heading home to Ethiopia. "I would love to see this building," he says. "It is something very special. It is a new technology."

He is, he admits, very much a home boy, proud of his country and happy to remain based there despite the number of times he travels overseas for competitions. "Even when there is a competition in Europe I go out for two or three days and then return," he says. While he is among the world's elite athletes, Gebrselassie knows many of those starting the race with him will be less experienced. His advice to those running their first marathon is to enjoy it and not start too quickly.

"The marathon is one you have to prepare for," he says. "You have to train well and you just don't need to run fast at the beginning of the competition. Some joggers do this and die at the end. Better to calculate the speed." Gebrselassie has run since he was a child, when he would make the 20km "dash" from the farm where he and his nine siblings grew up to their school and back every day. Today, 27 world records later, and with a lucrative partnership with the German athletic equipment maker Adidas in his pocket, running has become his job. But his job still brings him joy.

"A day without running is boring," he says. "Of course this is my job, but running is also part of my life." loatway@thenational.ae