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Gebrselassie Making Good On Agreement

Marathon world-record holder ready for his first appearance at the BUPA Great North Run on Sunday.

Written by: David Monti
(c) 2010 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved. Used with permission.

NEWCASTLE, England — By running Sunday’s 30th BUPA Great North Run here, Haile Gebrselassie will be fulfilling a promise he made ten years ago in Sydney, Australia.

After winning the Olympic 10,000m title for the second time, Gebrselassie went to a press conference held by the Great North Run organizers, Nova International, announcing that he would run his first-ever half marathon at their event.  He was joined by Britain’s Paula Radcliffe, and Nova International chief executive officer Brendan Foster.

“In Sydney we had already done a deal with Haile to run his first big road race,” Foster explained here today.  “The deal was done and we had a press conference in Sydney at Circular Quays. We had Haile there, we had Paula Radcliffe there.”

But Gebrselassie suffered an injury during the Olympic final, and didn’t make it to Newcastle.

“Paula came and ran the Great North Run after she ran the 10,000 [she won in 67:07], but Haile hurt his leg in the 10,000, and couldn’t even run the five, and couldn’t run the Great North Run,” Foster recalled.  “Ever since then we’ve had an agreement that he would run the Great North Run.”

A year later, Gebrselassie did make his half marathon debut in Britain, but it was in Bristol at the IAAF World Half Marathon Championships.  He won in 60:03, setting the stage for a brilliant road running career which had the real,-Berlin Marathon as its centerpiece.  That event usually takes place in the same September timeframe as the Great North Run.

“Every year Berlin’s been in the way, the marathon’s been in the way, he was ill one year, the (world) championships were too late one year, ” Foster lamented.

Although Gebrselassie would feature prominently at other Nova events –like the BUPA Great Manchester Run which he won three times in 2005, ’09 and ’10– he just couldn’t make it to Newcastle for what Foster considers his most important event.  The Great North Run is Europe’s second largest half marathon, and the largest road race in Britain with 37,599 finishers in 2009.

“You know, it was supposed to be ten years ago,” Gebrselassie said today at a news conference shaking his head.  “You know, I don’t understand that this is the only race I keep promising for ten years.  You know, in 2000 we had the press conference and I was supposed to run here in the Great North Run.  It didn’t happen.  I keep my promise for ten years, and I came this year.  Sunday, I’ll be on the starting line.”

That last line brought applause, and when the room quieted down Gebrselassie turned to Foster and said, “I’m sorry, Brendan.”

Gebrselassie’s presence here is particularly important for Foster because his elite field has suffered several withdrawals.  Two-time men’s champion Martin Lel was forced to abandon with a fever; World Marathon Majors women’s champion Irina Mikitenko caught a cold in St. Moritz where she was training for the Bank of America Chicago Marathon; and defending women’s champion Jessica Augusto has an unspecified injury.  Foster’s elite athlete team recruited two-time world marathon champion Jaouad Gharib of Morocco, and reigning Olympic Marathon gold medallist Constantina Dita as last minute replacements.

But no organizer can replace the smiling Gebrselassie, whom American rival Dathan Ritzenhein said today was “without a doubt” the world’s greatest distance runner (the two will also face each other at the ING New York City Marathon in November).  At the half-marathon distance, Gebrselassie has been particularly good.  A former world-record holder with a 58:55 personal best, Gebrselassie remains the fourth-fastest half marathoner ever.  He has broken the one hour mark five times, and has nine half-marathon victories in 11 efforts at the distance.

Gebrselassie’s longevity continues to impress.  Ritzenhein pointed out that he was just 13 years-old when the evergreen Gebrselassie won in Sydney.  Now 37 –and many experts think he is actually older– Gebrselassie dismissed any notion that he is too old to be competitive.  Flanked by the 40 year-old Dita who won her Olympic title at 38, he joked today that he is “only 21” when a reporter asked about his age, causing the assembled press to break out in laughter.

“Let me tell you, age is just a number,” Gebrselassie intoned.  “If you are old mentally (then) you are old physically.  No doubt about that.”