Running like Haile Gebrselassie

Words Giacomo Iacomino, Images Michel Temteme / LUZ

On a farm, which was nothing more than a straw hut, a shepherd, his father and nine brothers lived with a child called Haile. To go to school he had to walk ten kilometres every day. Tell us this distance, because we will come back to it several times.
But little Haile was not walking there at school. He ran. He always ran. His feet were barefoot and the land arid, a mixture of sand and dirt. The air was almost unbreathable because of the heat. In class, however, there were no signs of fatigue on Haile's face. Sure, he was tired, dusty and thirsty. But the first thing that came to his classmates, and teachers, was his smile.
Gebre is loved all over the African continent, especially by children.

Something special

There was something special about that child, shy and thin like a nail, it was obvious. Starting from the way he ran. His pace was light, but sustained. Quick, but also fluid. And then there were those books. What do books have to do with it? They matter, because during the race he always kept them tight to his chest. He has done it so many times in his life that today, aged 45, his posture while running is exactly the same, with his left hand slightly lowered and firm. And the arm bent almost to ninety degrees. That's how Haile won his first race as a young boy. It was almost a game: in the village there was a competition for 1,500 metres.

"Try it, what is a kilometre and a half to you?" Tayeke, the elder brother who was with him, told him. It was a breeze. As a prize, he received five birr, almost half a euro. It was at that moment that something was triggered in his head: the race to get out of poverty, out of misery, running to help his family.
Although his father wanted him with him on the farm, at 16 years old he decided to train in the police force: it is the first step that will lead Haile Gebrselassie to become the Usain Bolt of the middle ground and marathon, shattering all the records possible and imaginable.

Entering history

Physically you would not have given him a euro, or eight birrs in Ethiopian currency, in height he does not even reach one metre sixty-five. Yet as a professional he has rewritten the history of athletics by winning the World Cup, Olympics and marathons.

He did so in the golden age of Kenyan cross-country skiers, considered the strongest ever and the opponents to beat. "Gebre against all", seems the title of a film but in essence that's how his career went, even if the challenge, the real one, was especially the one with himself. His aim was to defeat all and improve continuously. The day he set a new record in the ten thousand metres, he seemed disappointed. They asked him why:

"I was distracted - I'm sure I left at least three or four seconds on the road". Despite having just put his signature on a new record, he was not happy. His perfectionist nature caused him to become very demanding on himself. Despite this, his smile never left him, the same he had as a child, when he arrived at school after having raced for ten kilometres.

"I smile because I am a sportsman. Sport was born to make people happy. When I race, when I run, people are happy to see me and I am happy for that".

"At that moment something was triggered in his head: the race to get out of poverty, out of misery, running to help his family".

Forrest? No, Gebre

Forget Forrest Gump. The expression: "I'm a little tired", to Gebre, does not belong at all. He loves too much running to say or even just think about something like that. It was not by chance that it took some time before retiring from the official races. In New York in 2010, he was forced to leave after 26 kilometers. He was 37 years old. His knees no longer held him up like they once did, even his tendons barely supported him. "Just the Emperor abdicates" the newspapers titled. He returned to his homeland, Haile. He returned to Ethiopia. But he was different from the other times: "People's reaction overwhelmed me, he didn't like the way I had decided to end my career. And they were right."

The retreat made in his own way

For his compatriots he was a god. And a god can certainly not withdraw from losing. So he reversed his decision to retire and took part in the Great Manchester Run, which was his final catwalk. He finished sixteenth, but on that ten kilometre course he decided to race it twice, a bit like he did with at school: the first was to cross the finish line. The second time was to greet the public and his fans, in a triumph of photos and applause. So it was that he finally said live to the BBC: "I'll stop competing, certainly not running. I will run as long as I live, running is my life".

In the name of Nelson

Running is his life but so is Ethiopia. Gebre is one of the greatest African athletes ever, his celebrity status in his continent is equal to that of George Weah and Roger Milla. Like them, he has spent and still spends a life as a champion. After retiring as a professional athlete, Haile dedicated body and soul to the development of his country. With the money he earned he built schools. Created jobs. He trained the younger generations and became a Unicef ambassador, for his commitment to orphaned and AIDS patients.

His point of reference? The only one possible: Nelson Mandela, became his example to follow and imitate. In 2016 Gebre became president of the Ethiopian Athletics Federation. "I want to take care of the athletes, I want to make everything that is needed available to them,” he told Eurosport a few days after his election. And his views on doping? A cancer to be eradicated, a long and complex job. We said that Nelson Mandela was a model to be imitated. To the end. Because there are those who foresee for the former Ethiopian athlete a candidacy as the next president of his country. "Now I'm working on sport. And in sport, as I see it, there is no politics. I will finish my 4 years in office, and then we will think about it”.

“Gebrselassie is coming”

Gebre had a fixed nail: defeat, improve himself continuously, and file seconds and minutes.
Two Olympic gold medals, four world championships, twenty-six world records with three still unbeaten: the time record, the record in the twenty thousand metres and 30 km on the road. More obviously, he has also won a dozen marathons. This is how Haile has rewritten the story of the background and the middle ground. The world noticed him in 1992, in Seoul, in the junior athletics championships. At 19 years of age he won gold in the 5,000 metres but especially in the 10,000 meters, whose final was dominated by the Kenyan Josephat Machuka. Until the last lap: Gebre's who recovers. He approaches, thanks to his light and fast stride. In the final hundred meters he becomes the shadow of Machuka. Gebrselassie finally puts the arrow near the finish line.Machuka believed he had victory in his hand and at the instant of Gebre’s overtaking, a quantity of anger grows within him that becomes impossible to hold back. And so he reacts. With a fist. Straight on the opponent's back. Machuka is disqualified as a result. Haile crosses the finish line first and with a smile, of course.

There is a new sheriff in town. He has an easy smile, a low hand in his gait (remember the books?) and the race in his blood. Kenya is being warned. In 1993 the first gold in the world, always in the ten thousand metres, he arrived in Stuttgart. He's still 20 years old but his is a veteran tactic. He glues to the then world champion Moses Tanui, obviously Kenyan. From the start, he feels his breath on his neck. There is very little space between the two. So close are they that on the last lap there is a contact between the right foot of the pursuer and the left foot of the driver. Tanui loses his shoe. Gebre’s overtaking was close to the finish line. As in Seoul. The Kenyan athlete asks for Gebre’s disqualification but for the judges it was only an accident.

The domination

Another year passes, and then in 1994, Gebrselassie sets his first world record in the five thousand metres. In 1995 he improved his time by more than ten seconds and also set the record in the ten thousand, in which he won another gold at the World Cup in Finland. 1996 is the year of the Atlanta Olympics: Gebrselassie dominates with low hands, setting the new Olympic record of 10,000.

He won gold on gold in the 1,500, 3,000 and of course his beloved ten thousand metres and he would repeat the same feat in Sydney four years later, burning his friend Paul Tergat, Kenyan, and one of his greatest opponents by 0.09 seconds. The Australian commentator, who on the last lap just repeated: "Gebrselassie is coming!" Between 1996 and 2000 he took part in the seven most important mid-fund competitions and won them all. The bronze of the 2001 World Cup in Canada is a sign of a career that will inevitably decline. But he has time to win his first half marathon world championship in Bristol and the 3,000 indoors in Birmingham. He tries to enter the history of athletics: no one has ever won three Olympics in a row in the ten thousand meters.

He can't do it either, he comes fifth in Athens, thanks to a problem with the tendons that forces him to skip the last three weeks of training. The appointment with history is only postponed.

King of marathons

Because Gebre wins the marathons of Amsterdam, Fukuoka, New York and Berlin three times. Here, in 2007, he set the world record: 2'03'59'' (improved two seconds six years later by Kenyan Kimetto). He finished sixth at the 2008 Beijing Olympics at the age of 35, ahead of many twenty-year-old athletes, before his initial retirement in 2010, after New York, the failed goal of London 2012 and, as mentioned, the Manchester Great Run: "I leave competition, competitive sport. We must leave room for young people.” He is the president of the Ethiopian Federation, and the new generations are his main target.

Gebre training method

Alarm clock at dawn. Two hundred kilometres to be covered per week. Muscle strengthening and toning in the gym, for a total of fifteen sessions per week. That's how he trained every day of his professional life. And that's how professional marathon runners prepare for their races today. Gebre still remains an example, for everyone. He is not a god, but a special man, an exceptional athlete and a model to follow. The Nelson Mandela of the fund, with the appropriate proportions of course. Already standing at 5.30 am, the Ethiopian athlete travelled 20 km on unpaved terrain to warm his muscles: more or less he covered them in about two hours, with a trend in progression.
Late in the morning or early afternoon, the session began in the gym: physical exercises but also exercises to strengthen the muscles, especially the twins of the calf. One of his secrets was in fact in his feet, which is why the dynamics of his race transferred much of the impact right to the calves. Finally, another ten kilometres of running, which could even become twenty, to close the day, always on the road, even if he happened to do them on the treadmill.
He had a minimum goal, when he ran the 42 km and 195 meters of the marathon: to travel them in a time close to, or even under two hours. "In these cases, the so-called 'repeated' ones are very important and this applies to anyone, whether they are an amateur marathon runner or a professional runner". Gastone Breccia, 56, a History teacher at the University of Pavia, but also a trainer, athletic trainer and passionate runner, and author of the book: "The most beautiful effort: why running changes life", Laterza editions, speaks.

In the head of Gebreselassie

In a race like the marathon, which lasts more than two hours, mental contribution is essential. "The main strategy to be adopted is the so-called 'framing' - continues Gastone-. That is, to break the effort into fragments. If you think there are still 42 km to go, it's the end. Better to focus first on the top five. Then on the next five. Segmenting is the only way to deal with pain. Already, the suffering: in a marathon becomes more and more intense when energy supplies are in reserve. Glucose in the muscles, and in the liver, after a while run out and at certain levels, if you haven't trained, the race becomes a nightmare: "Keeping hard in these moments, being aware that you can defeat fatigue allows the athlete to be much more motivated. Here it is, another key word: fatigue.

Learning how to manage it and not to suffer it is an important aspect. How? "With training, of course. But even without exaggerating effort in the first kilometres, causing damage to the legs and muscles. Gastone continues: "Above all, and this applies to everyone, we must know what we are worth. Because at the beginning you feel good, trained, rested. We don't think about the after, but by doing so we arrive in the suffering stage much faster". Rest on Friday and run on Saturday for the amateur, reduce a little the 'kilometres distance for professionals, is the advice on how to train the last days before a Sunday race. That you win by breathing, with your muscles. But above all, with the head. Just as Gebre did: "The curiosity - adds Gastone- is that all the champions manage to cover the second part of the marathon slightly faster than the first".

"You can always do something, even if you come from the poorest corner of Africa"

The final recipe is therefore ready: a perfect knowledge of your body, the awareness of your means, in particular how much you are able to pull in the first kilometers without fatigue, run with extreme regularity and increase the pace per turn, while always maintaining the pace according to your ability. Gastone concludes: "If you are stronger than others and you don't make any mistakes, you have won. Does this remind you of anyone? We’ll give you a clue: he was born in a small and poor village in the heart of Ethiopia. One day he said:

"You can always do something, even if you come from the poorest corner of Africa”.

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