Meeting The Emperor

Marathon world-record holder Haile Gebrselassie will make his NYC Marathon debut on November 7. Photo: PhotoRun.net

Marathon world-record holder Haile Gebrselassie will make his NYC Marathon debut on November 7. Photo: PhotoRun.net

Marathon world record holder and 2010 ING New York City Marathon entrant Haile Gebrselassie is the Muhammad Ali of running.

Written by: Matt Fitzgerald

On November 7 the greatest runner of all time, Haile Gebrselassie, will run the ING New York City Marathon. I was fortunate enough to meet Haile last year in Los Angeles, and it was an experience I will never forget. I wrote about it in RUN: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel. Here’s an excerpt:

I do not have many heroes in sports. One of the few athletes I venerate is the great Ethiopian distance runner Haile Gebrselassie. I love Geb for more or less the same reasons I love Muhammad Ali, another of my sporting heroes. Geb is not quite the deific figure that Ali is, but he creates a similar type of excitement by combining once-in-a-generation athletic performance with infectious charisma. Such people are very rare. More common are the likes of Michael Jordan, who manifest once-in-a-generation performance and just a regular personality. Ali and Geb are special because their athletic performance seems to be fed by the same source as their towering personalities, and that source is an overflowing lust for life, which to me is perhaps the most attractive of all personality characteristics.

I met Haile Gebrselassie in March 2009, in Los Angeles, at a media event hosted by his shoe sponsor, adidas. Geb made his first appearance at the event with no entourage. He had come all the way from Ethiopia alone. The photographers and video crews present showered him with digital attention as he walked outside surrounded by a mob of starstruck writers, including me. Geb then led us on a short, slow jog along the beach, which he interrupted to guide us through a brief session of those crazy calisthenics that Ethiopian runners like to do before workouts. Of the scores of people we passed on our little jaunt, only two recognized Geb: a German tourist, who behaved like a 12-year-old girl at a Jonas Brothers concert, and an Ethiopian American cab driver who looked to be enjoying the most pleasant surprise of his life as he shouted, “Haile!” from the window of his passing vehicle.

Geb is known as the runner who always smiles, and indeed he wore a childlike grin throughout our run. I think he smiles all the time partly because he is an innately positive person and partly because he is thrilled by how his life has turned out. Much as Muhammad Ali loves being Muhammad Ali, Haile Gebrselassie loves being Haile Gebrselassie. His passion for running is unmatched, and he can scarcely believe his good fortune at being the second-fastest distance runner in history (after his younger countryman Kenenisa Bekele).

His will for speed is insatiable. After he set his second marathon world record in the 2008 Berlin Marathon, the first words out of his mouth were, “I can run faster.” That is all the proof anyone could need that being a happy runner is compatible with being a runner who is never satisfied. In fact, the spirit of discontent does not stand in the way of Gebrselassie’s enjoyment of running; it is the very manner in which he enjoys running. He just can’t get enough speed in the same way new lovers can’t get enough time together and some musicians can’t get enough performing. In interviews, Geb refuses to talk of retiring, but promises instead to keep training, racing, and striving until he is effectively dragged out of the sport by the corporeal disintegration of aging.

On the morning after our beach run, we journalists took a bus to the Home Depot Center in Carson and gathered at the track. Geb was now joined by the other big adidas track-and-field stars: world champion sprinters Allyson Felix, Tyson Gay, and Veronica Campbell-Brown; world and Olympic champion 400 m runner Jeremy Warriner; Olympic medalist sprinter Christine Ohuruogu; and Olympic champion high jumper Blanka Vlasic. One by one these winners were paraded before our seated journalistic assembly until they stood in a line of self-consciousness like so many beauty pageant contestants. After joining the lineup next to the 6-foot-4 Vlasic, Gebrselassie, all of 5 foot 3, made a show of standing on his tiptoes and drawing up his shoulders as he stole a glance upward at her head. We laughed heartily as the other star athletes stood stone-faced.

Throughout the morning, the champions took turns demonstrating for us various training drills and exercises and describing how their adidas footwear and apparel helped their performances. Each did so with the posture and attitude of a person fulfilling a contractual obligation—with one exception.

A treadmill had been set up at the edge of the track some distance away from the high jump area. As Vlasic entertained us with a demonstration of her practice run-ups, Geb began warming up on the treadmill, gradually increasing his pace. By the time we were shepherded over to him, he was running at his world record marathon pace of 4:43 per mile. It was an awesome spectacle to behold. What struck me most was that I could not hear the man’s feet landing on the treadmill, although I stood six feet from him. There was just a slight change in the pitch of the machine’s whirring motor when his foot struck the belt, but the actual impact of the shoe on the belt was totally inaudible. The man was light on his feet.

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