The world-record holder leaves little doubt about his intentions for Sunday’s ING New York City Marathon.
Written by: Sarah Wassner Flynn
NEW YORK, NY—At a mid-town hotel on a dreary afternoon, Haile Gebrselassie bounds into a conference room, beaming a smile that envelops his entire face and sends his eyes hiding among deep-set crinkles on either temple. His understated, sprightly presence is not entirely what you’d expect from what many consider to be the greatest distance runner of all time. He’s so unassuming; in fact, that he flits from press event to press event with no entourage, no awaiting blacked-out Escalade but merely a manager by his side and a simple town car to shuttle him down the streets.
Indeed, “Geb”, 37, casts quite the inconspicuous shadow. But ask him about his plans for Sunday’s ING New York City Marathon and that impish smile fades into a stoic game face. Without a pause or a moment of hesitation, Geb clearly states his intentions for the day: “I am here to win.”
Geb has every right to be so bold. He has, after all, two Olympic gold medals, and 27 world records—including the marathon mark, 2:03:59, set in 2008. But he’s not unbeatable. And, considering that he has always fared better on flatter, faster courses (his world record was set in perfect conditions on the perennial swift Berlin Marathon venue), the rolling elevation of NYC could provide an obstacle. Plus, he hasn’t necessarily had the best luck here (an asthma attack knocked him out of contention in last March’s New York City Half Marathon). But, he insists that the five boroughs do not intimidate him. Neither does the city’s colder weather—which will likely be about 20 degrees cooler on race day than his training grounds in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
“This is great weather for a marathon,” he says, tugging his parka closer to his neck. “It’s cold for me, but as long as there is no rain, we should be OK. You can’t complain about New York City weather.”
And he can’t complain about the professional men’s field that New York Road Runners has comprised for Sunday’s race, either. A true competitor, Geb loves a race, and he’ll get one this weekend with challengers like two-time NYC champ Marilson Gomes dos Santos of Brazil, reigning champion Meb Keflezighi, and Kenya’s Abel Kirui, James Kwambai and Emmanuel Mutai all gunning for to break the orange finish line tape in Central Park and don the famous Laurel wreath crown.
“There will be many challengers this year,” Geb acknowledges. “The Kenyans are very strong.”
When pressed about his race plans, Geb demurs, opting only to express his excitement to make his debut in the ING New York City Marathon and to note that he’s been feeling good.
“This is a dream come true to run in New York,” he says. “It’s never worked out because I have always been focused on running for time. I had to go to a fast course. This year, winning is most important. It’s a big race in a big city. I do not worry about time.”
Rather, instead of splits and strategy, Geb seems much more at ease chatting about meeting Edison Pena, one of the 33 miners rescued from a collapsed Chilean mine, whom he calls a “hero”—a choice description for someone whom himself has been hoisted to heroic levels throughout Ethiopia, and not just because of his multiple medals and records. A savvy businessman with various ventures throughout his country, including a new resort hotel bearing his name, a café, a construction company, and car dealerships, Geb uses his status and success to benefit Ethiopia’s economy—and empower his less-fortunate countrymen.
“We employ over 600 people in my construction company alone. We’ve built schools. They make everything by hand,” he says. “My country, my people, they need this. So I stay busy.”
And while discussing his ability to balance it all, it’s clear that he regards running just as high of a priority in his life than his wife, Alem and four children.
“It’s always very difficult to decide when to be running and when to be with my family,” he says. “When I’m not traveling, I’m always with my family. Still, it’s almost impossible to have to choose. I have to make sacrifices.”
That’s not to say that Geb’s gearing up to put his running days behind him. When the topic turns to his future as a marathoner and potential retirement, that sweet smile once again shifts to a steely resolve.
“I feel no pressure to win here, as this won’t be my last marathon. There will always be another,” Geb says affirmatively, adding that he’s already committed to race the Tokyo Marathon in February. “I have plans to run for the next many years.”