Aging marathoners Haile Gebrselassie and Paula Radcliffe have accomplished enough to retire, but if they want to keep going, why not?
In the past few weeks, Haile Gebrselassie dropped out of the Fukuoka Marathon and Paula Radcliffe told the BBC that she hasn’t run since August, when she had foot surgery. There are several ways to write about titans as they fade, and one of them is to harangue: This isn’t dignified! You’re ruining your legacy! Stop now before it gets any worse!
Of course it’s a bad approach (who could blame any runner for running?) but Radcliffe and Gebrselassie are compelling athletes because they have raced so well, for so long, and it’s hard to imagine what they gain by trundling on.
Radcliffe is now 39. In August, after missing the London Olympics, she underwent surgery to repair three discreet injuries in her left foot. She lost funding from UK Athletics in October, in part because she is not considered a viable contender for the 2016 Olympics, but also because she last raced a marathon 15 months ago, in Berlin, where she finished third in 2:23:46. Before that she was fourth at the New York City Marathon in 2009. She has not run under 2:20 since 2005 and has not won a marathon since 2008, although she still holds the world record of 2:15:25 for the 26.2-mile distance.
And Gebrselassie’s last five marathons? A DNF at Fukuoka on December 2, where he called it quits with 10K to go. A 2:08:17 at Tokyo in February. A DNF at Berlin last fall, where he walked off the course at 35K. A DNS at Tokyo in 2011. A DNF at New York in 2010. And he is how old? Early 40s, by the best estimates, but let’s say somewhere between 39 (the age listed on his passport) and 44. When I think about Gebrselassie I reflexively recall his post-race press conference from New York in 2010, in which he told a hushed and crowded ballroom that he didn’t want to keep running if he was going to be so bad at it. Isn’t this exactly what Haile was hoping to avoid?
If the trend doesn’t look great, so then why are either still racing? An obvious first choice is that it remains lucrative. Gebrselassie’s appearance package for Fukuoka, though lower than Tokyo and diminished by half when he didn’t finish, was rumored to be more than $100,000. In a 2:05 to 2:06 race, which he believed was possible, he might have stood to make perhaps a quarter of a million dollars in prize money and bonuses, which is a lot to walk away from, and maybe enough to keep going.
Second, the marathon makes it easy to pretend that the edge is still sharp. Most marathoners only race twice per year, so one or two bad showings could be bad luck — it’s not like the mile, where you’ll get kicked around half a dozen times in half a dozen weeks. And good marathon runners are supremely persistent, which is a huge advantage until it isn’t.
But a better question is: Why do so few marathoners actually retire at all? Paula and Haile, it turns out, are pretty typical: think of the career runners who were really good five or eight or even ten years ago, and think about how many of them—Martin Lel, Hendrick Raamala, Meb Keflezighi, Abdi Abdirahman, Deena Kastor, Colleen de Reuck, Magdalena Lewy Boulet, Catherine Ndereba—are still active, or at least nominally so. In fact, it’s hard to name very many who have formally retired, as opposed to running a series of mediocre races until quietly going into coaching or managing. (And then there’s Joan Benoit Samuelson, who appears able to run a series of pretty good marathons, more or less indefinitely.) As I was trying to figure out when two-time Olympian Alan Culpepper quit, I came across an interview he did with the Denver Post in 2010, in which he described retirement as a process. “There’s this element of de-training, physically and emotionally and psychologically,” he said. “You can’t just stop. I couldn’t. I felt like that would have been bad for me, just to stop running. I had to de-train everything, and that was a process.” For real high-profile retirees, Paul Tergat comes to mind, and not many others.
Neither Haile nor Paula are satisfied with their accomplishments. If Haile retires now, he will do so without a major world record to his name. If Paula retires now, she will do so without an Olympic medal; she has said that she watched the Olympic race in London in tears from her hotel room. I can only believe that they’ve done enough to quit, but if they want to keep going, why not?
Maybe they will hit that one last one out of the park…
About The Author:
Peter Vigneron is a senior contributing editor at Competitor magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @PeterVigneron.