The world championships are her “big goal” for the season.
Written By: Sabrina Yohannes
Ethiopian Meseret Defar arrived in Berlin for the 2009 world championships favored to defend her 5,000-meter title. She was also entered in the 10,000 meters, an event in which she had run the second-fastest time of the year in her debut earlier that season. Immediately after her arrival in Germany, she came down with flu-like symptoms that depleted her strength and kept her awake and coughing much of the night. When she ran the 10,000m final on the opening night of the championships, her legs almost gave way on the home straight. She was overtaken by compatriot Meselech Melkamu with 30 meters left to go and then, steps from the line, rapidly went from being second to finishing in fifth place and out of the medals altogether.
“I was in good shape, but when I arrived there, I got flu and got sick, and after that, I lost,” she told reporters at the 2011 world championships in Daegu. Seven days after the Berlin 10,000, feeling better but still experiencing the residual effects of the ailment, Defar took bronze in the 5,000m, an event in which she was previously the world record holder and the Olympic champion. “I was disappointed.”
“What frequently gets in my way is catching colds, and it’s happened often,” Defar said in an interview a few weeks ago. “It’s something I fear, and it has ruined a lot of things. I always try my best to avoid catching a cold.” Like her Berlin races, Defar’s attempt at the world indoor 3000m record of 8:27.86 in Boston in 2007 was thwarted by a severe cold that she also succumbed to right after her long flight there. She was sick on the track after crossing the finish line in 8:30.31, and flat on her back, drenched in perspiration trackside afterwards. A week later, however, Defar attacked the mark again in Stuttgart and smashed it by more than four seconds, running 8:23.72.
This coming week in Daegu, she will get a second chance at world titles in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters. Defar is slated to run both events, though final reassessments can be made after the 10,000m final, which takes place on Saturday night. The pursuit of double gold is an ambitious one, and the thought of achieving it has seduced the defending world champions in the two distances–Vivian Cheruiyot and Linet Masai, both of Kenya–as well. Just medaling in both races is not an easy task, as Defar and Melkamu learned in Berlin when they came away with only one medal each despite having run the year’s two fastest 10,000m times and two of history’s five sub-30 minute clockings. Only one woman has ever succeeded in the golden double and that was Defar’s countrywoman, Tirunesh Dibaba, who did it at the world championships in 2005 and the Olympics in 2008.
Defar’s own credentials are also dazzling: two Olympic and three world championship 5000m medals, four consecutive world indoor 3000m golds (including her current 2010 title), and world records over two miles and 5,000m indoors and out. She is undefeated in five races from 3000m (indoors) to 10,000m in 2011, and so far this outdoor season, her goals have more or less gone according to plan. They are largely means to an end, however. “My big goal is Daegu,” she said.
Defar ran 14:37.32 to win the 5,000m in Oslo in June ahead of compatriots Sentayehu Ejigu and Genzebe Dibaba. “It was a great race, but because it was raining, we couldn’t run the time we wanted,” said Defar. “I was aiming to run in the [14:]20-something range.” Defar has run four of the 10 fastest 5,000-meter times in history, including the former world record of 14:16.63 and her current best and the second-fastest time ever of 14:12.88, clocked in 2008. “Training is great, it’s going very well,” said Defar, whose closest training partner is Ejigu.
At the Paris Diamond League meet in July Defar ran the first – and still one of only two — sub-14:30 times of the year when she posted a 14:29.52 to win in a long sprint ahead of Ejigu, Kenyan Mercy Cherono and American Shalane Flanagan. Defar coughed and cleared her throat repeatedly just before the gun went off and eagerly opened a bottle of Gatorade and drank thirstily as soon as the race ended. The cough was not a sign of a dreaded cold, however. “No, my throat just felt tight,” she said with a laugh.
“I’ve run a good time, but I was hoping to run under [14:]25,” she said. “Well, I’ve run [14:]29 and I’m happy I’ve run the world leading time. … It was a race in which I wanted to test myself before the world championships, and I finished the race feeling comfortable. I finished feeling very relaxed and not pressured, knowing that I could run faster.”
Next on her agenda was qualifying for the 10,000m in Daegu and she did so in Nuoro, Italy on July 13 with a 31:05.05 clocking which, by design, was nowhere near her 29:59.20 best. “I don’t want to exert myself unnecessarily,” she said. The time nevertheless made her the fourth-fastest of the year.
Her focus after that was preparing for Daegu. “I went back to Ethiopia to train and now I’m feeling very good,” she said last Thursday. Defar and Melkamu, who is entered in only the longer event, lead the Ethiopian team for the 10,000m straight final on the opening day of the championships tomorrow, while the 5,000m heats start on the morning of August 30.
While Defar did not prevail in that particular combination the last time around, she does have considerable experience in high-level doubles on the world stage. She was a double gold medalist over 3000m and 5000m at the 2002 world junior championships, and won the same events on successive days at three world athletics finals: 2005, 2008 and 2009–an unmatched achievement that, along with other victories there, makes her a record nine-time winner at the global season finale.
So far this year, Cheruiyot, the world cross country champion, sent a powerful signal that she is a force to be reckoned with in Daegu over 5000m and 10,000m. She is the reigning Kenyan champion in the longer event. Cheruiyot clocked 14:20.87 for 5,000m in a solo run in Stockholm on July 29, slashing Defar’s world leading time. She is also undefeated on the track from 3000m to 10,000m this season. The 10,000 final in Daegu also features 2009 champion Masai and current world leader Sally Kipyego of Kenya, who has run 30:38.35.
For the women doubling in Daegu, the 5,000m final comes after two races totaling 15,000 meters (10,000m final and 5,000m prelims), run against championship caliber athletes in the preceding six days. “In Daegu, there will be many big competitors from Kenya and Ethiopia,” said Defar. “It will be difficult running both the 5000m and 10,000m again but I’ve trained hard to try to beat them and I will do my best.”
If she triumphs in one or both of the races in Daegu, Defar will have done so by overcoming formidable opponents. Typically after her races Defar’s emotions are written all over her face and apparent through her body language. In Oslo, she came across a section of Ethiopian fans in the stands and broke into an impromptu rendition of the traditional Ethiopian shoulder dance or “eskista” during her victory lap. “I’d forgotten about that,” she said later, laughing at the recollection. “They were dancing, accompanied by a drum, and when I saw them dancing, I danced with them.”
In Daegu she will be hoping for more cause for celebration on Saturday night and, if all goes well, again the following Friday.
About the Author:
Sabrina Yohannes is a freelance journalist from Ethiopia based in New York. She has written for Reuters, the New York Times, Washington Post, IAAF, Running Times and Universal Sports.