Become a Member

Get access to more than 30 brands, premium video, exclusive content, events, mapping, and more.

Already have an account? Sign In

Become a Member

Get access to more than 30 brands, premium video, exclusive content, events, mapping, and more.

Already have an account? Sign In



Meeting The Emperor

Marathon world record holder and 2010 ING New York City Marathon entrant Haile Gebrselassie is the Muhammad Ali of running.

Marathon world-record holder Haile Gebrselassie will make his NYC Marathon debut on November 7. Photo:
Marathon world-record holder Haile Gebrselassie will make his NYC Marathon debut on November 7. Photo:

Marathon world record holder and 2010 ING New York City Marathon entrant Haile Gebrselassie is the Muhammad Ali of running.

Written by: Matt Fitzgerald

On November 7 the greatest runner of all time, Haile Gebrselassie, will run the ING New York City Marathon. I was fortunate enough to meet Haile last year in Los Angeles, and it was an experience I will never forget. I wrote about it in RUN: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel. Here’s an excerpt:

I do not have many heroes in sports. One of the few athletes I venerate is the great Ethiopian distance runner Haile Gebrselassie. I love Geb for more or less the same reasons I love Muhammad Ali, another of my sporting heroes. Geb is not quite the deific figure that Ali is, but he creates a similar type of excitement by combining once-in-a-generation athletic performance with infectious charisma. Such people are very rare. More common are the likes of Michael Jordan, who manifest once-in-a-generation performance and just a regular personality. Ali and Geb are special because their athletic performance seems to be fed by the same source as their towering personalities, and that source is an overflowing lust for life, which to me is perhaps the most attractive of all personality characteristics.

I met Haile Gebrselassie in March 2009, in Los Angeles, at a media event hosted by his shoe sponsor, adidas. Geb made his first appearance at the event with no entourage. He had come all the way from Ethiopia alone. The photographers and video crews present showered him with digital attention as he walked outside surrounded by a mob of starstruck writers, including me. Geb then led us on a short, slow jog along the beach, which he interrupted to guide us through a brief session of those crazy calisthenics that Ethiopian runners like to do before workouts. Of the scores of people we passed on our little jaunt, only two recognized Geb: a German tourist, who behaved like a 12-year-old girl at a Jonas Brothers concert, and an Ethiopian American cab driver who looked to be enjoying the most pleasant surprise of his life as he shouted, “Haile!” from the window of his passing vehicle.

Geb is known as the runner who always smiles, and indeed he wore a childlike grin throughout our run. I think he smiles all the time partly because he is an innately positive person and partly because he is thrilled by how his life has turned out. Much as Muhammad Ali loves being Muhammad Ali, Haile Gebrselassie loves being Haile Gebrselassie. His passion for running is unmatched, and he can scarcely believe his good fortune at being the second-fastest distance runner in history (after his younger countryman Kenenisa Bekele).

His will for speed is insatiable. After he set his second marathon world record in the 2008 Berlin Marathon, the first words out of his mouth were, “I can run faster.” That is all the proof anyone could need that being a happy runner is compatible with being a runner who is never satisfied. In fact, the spirit of discontent does not stand in the way of Gebrselassie’s enjoyment of running; it is the very manner in which he enjoys running. He just can’t get enough speed in the same way new lovers can’t get enough time together and some musicians can’t get enough performing. In interviews, Geb refuses to talk of retiring, but promises instead to keep training, racing, and striving until he is effectively dragged out of the sport by the corporeal disintegration of aging.

On the morning after our beach run, we journalists took a bus to the Home Depot Center in Carson and gathered at the track. Geb was now joined by the other big adidas track-and-field stars: world champion sprinters Allyson Felix, Tyson Gay, and Veronica Campbell-Brown; world and Olympic champion 400 m runner Jeremy Warriner; Olympic medalist sprinter Christine Ohuruogu; and Olympic champion high jumper Blanka Vlasic. One by one these winners were paraded before our seated journalistic assembly until they stood in a line of self-consciousness like so many beauty pageant contestants. After joining the lineup next to the 6-foot-4 Vlasic, Gebrselassie, all of 5 foot 3, made a show of standing on his tiptoes and drawing up his shoulders as he stole a glance upward at her head. We laughed heartily as the other star athletes stood stone-faced.

Throughout the morning, the champions took turns demonstrating for us various training drills and exercises and describing how their adidas footwear and apparel helped their performances. Each did so with the posture and attitude of a person fulfilling a contractual obligation—with one exception.

A treadmill had been set up at the edge of the track some distance away from the high jump area. As Vlasic entertained us with a demonstration of her practice run-ups, Geb began warming up on the treadmill, gradually increasing his pace. By the time we were shepherded over to him, he was running at his world record marathon pace of 4:43 per mile. It was an awesome spectacle to behold. What struck me most was that I could not hear the man’s feet landing on the treadmill, although I stood six feet from him. There was just a slight change in the pitch of the machine’s whirring motor when his foot struck the belt, but the actual impact of the shoe on the belt was totally inaudible. The man was light on his feet.

Something called a heat camera was trained on Geb as he ran. A video screen displayed an image of him with coloring effects that showed how much heat was coming off various parts of his body. The ostensible point of this demonstration was to show off the thermoregulation properties of Geb’s adidas apparel. As an adidas rep blathered on and on about this stuff, Geb just kept running. Eventually, he started jabbing at the treadmill’s control panel. Is he going to slow down? I wondered. No, he was speeding up. Geb’s thighs were now coming up nearly to 90 degrees on each swing-through.

“How fast are you going now?” someone asked. Geb used a hand to create shade over the machine’s display console (a bright morning sun stood smack behind him) and positioned his nose just inches away from it, squinting. “Four thirty-six per mile!” he announced with boyish enthusiasm. There were murmurs and whistles.

The adidas rep wrapped up his song and dance and asked Geb if he would like to slow down and step off the treadmill so that he could talk about his shoes, shorts, and singlet. Geb politely refused, saying he could talk as he ran. Moments later he was jabbing at the control panel again, and his pace accelerated further. He knew what we were really there for, and he was happy—beyond happy—to put on a show.

“How fast now?” someone shouted.

“Four twenty-six!” Geb beamed. His next move was now inevitable. He jabbed his right index finger into the panel repeatedly, and his stride opened up wider and wider.

“Four minutes per mile!” he shouted with the pride of a motorcycle daredevil taking a bow after leaping over a bunch of school buses. He held the pace for maybe half a minute, throwing his arms overhead and pumping his fists in celebration before quitting at last. When he stepped off the treadmill, he was given a rapturous ovation.

I guess you could say he won the beauty pageant.

As a final encore, Geb talked very sincerely about how much he liked his adidas racing flats. Whatever adidas paid this peerless ambassador, the company was getting its money’s worth.

After lunch I sat down with Geb one-on-one for a 15-minute interview. I was a bit apprehensive because I had never read or seen an interview with him that was particularly revealing. He always spoke in generalities and platitudes, such as “One must train very hard.” At dinner the previous night, I had asked Track & Field News managing editor Sieg Lindstrom, who has known Geb since he burst onto the international athletics scene in the early 1990s, for some tips on interviewing the great man. Lindstrom was not terribly encouraging.

“Is it a language barrier?” I asked him.

“That’s part of it,” he said. “English is his second language, so he puts things in simpler terms when he’s speaking it. But the other part is that the Africans think about running in simpler terms anyway. I think they feel we overanalyze it and make it more complicated than it needs to be.”

This advice did not help me coax any more verbosity from Gebrselassie than I had heard and read in other interviews, but it did help me understand his answers a little better. I first asked about how he plans his training, and he answered, “It comes from what kind of competition. Is it marathon, half marathon? What level I am. What I have to do. Stuff like that, you know? You just put it together, just like that.”

Yes, just like that. I guess.

Only later, through conversations with English sports nutrition researcher Asker Jeukendrup, Geb’s onetime nutrition adviser, and other native English speakers familiar with the details of Geb’s training, did I learn that he really does not plan his training in the way that most Western runners do. There are no fancy multiphase periodization schedules. Instead, he trains the same way pretty much all the time, going a little lighter when he has just come off a big race and a little heavier when the next big race is close, and going a little faster when the next big race is shorter and a little slower when the next big race is longer.

I got a hint of the repetitiveness in Geb’s training formula when I asked him, “Do you have certain test workouts that you do to measure your progress in training?”

He replied, “Because I am training for a marathon now, once a week there is a route in training—20 km, 30 km—I will run that and compare it to just a week ago, a few weeks ago, last year.”

Again, through later research I was able to determine that this 20 km or 30 km run was in fact a time trial. He runs a 20 km or 30 km time trial every week in marathon training, which shows not only how repetitive his training is, but also how hard.

I asked Gebrselassie to name his favorite workout. If I had known him better, I would not have been so surprised to learn that his favorite session was also his toughest. “Hill training is my favorite,” he said. “Because that’s the one that gives you a lot of problems. Pain. Breathing too much. Struggling too much. Of course, you don’t enjoy it during training, but after training, after you reach the top and you look down, and say, ‘That is what I did,’ it gives you confidence.”

Let me just repeat that, with emphasis. Hill training (by which, I later learned, he means 90 minutes hard straight up Entoto Mountain outside of Ethiopia’s capital city, Addis Ababa) is Gebrselassie’s favorite workout, he says, “because that’s the one that gives you a lot of problems. Pain.” Now that’s interesting.

I asked Geb if he still worked with a coach. He answered: “I have a coach, but he just tells me the things I know. I don’t do it if he tells me to do just 200, 400 m [intervals] today. No use. I know already this kind of program is going to kill me. I need a coach, but when you talk about a coach, a coach’s job is not only to arrange a program or to take a time.”

I took this answer to mean that Geb knew what worked for him as a runner, and he therefore did not need a coach to prescribe workouts. While he did not spell out what he needs a coach for, I guessed it is to hold him back when he needs to be held back, help him troubleshoot when problems arise, and perform other counseling and advisory services, as many coaches of experienced elite runners limit themselves, or are limited, to doing.

Being one year older than Geb, who was 36 at the time of our interview, I did not allow our little sit-down to conclude before I had asked him a few questions about age. While he did confess to having altered his training for fear of injuries—avoiding those 200 m and 400 m repeats, lifting weights, riding a bike, and (if we can call it training) getting daily postworkout massages—he also said regarding his age: “That’s why I keep winning. One of my advantages now is longtime experience. I know what I have to do to win the race, before the race, after the race, with recovery. That’s one of the advantages for old runners. That’s why I keep running well. The young runners have enough power just to do whatever they want. But if you think with strategy, you have a kind of advantage.”

More than a year after this interview took place, Geb is still running well and still beating younger runners. His major tune-up race for the New York City Marathon was the Great North Run, a highly competitive half marathon in England. Haile won by two minutes in bad weather with an amazing time of 59:33. Does he have enough left to win in New York? You bet.