‘If things continue to progress in same way, I see marathon being run in 1:45’

Haile Gebrselassie knows a thing or two about chasing world records and breaking them. Over the course of a legendary career, the Ethiopian, who is now 49, broke 27 world records in distance events, on track and road. He won two Olympic gold medals in the 10,000 meters and 11 major marathons around the world.

His road running career saw him become the first runner to go under 2:04 for the marathon when he ran 2:03:59 in Berlin in 2008. Things have changed massively since then. In September 2022, again at Berlin, Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya set the current world record for men over the distance with a time of 2 hours 1 minute 09 seconds.

To run so fast, for so long, has astounded scientists but the modern athlete is aided not just by better training methods but also by the advancements in shoe technology.

Gebrselassie, who is in India for the Vedanta Delhi Half-Marathon on Sunday, sat down and spoke about how the sport is changing in a freewheeling chat. Excerpts from the interview:

What do you make of the seemingly inevitable march towards the 2-hour mark?

As you know, when we talk about a marathon race nowadays, we don’t talk about only the performance of the athlete. That is the main thing, of course. But nowadays, technology makes athletes run fast too. In my time, we ran good times. The evolution is similar to, say, what we see in cars—a model from 2000 won’t be as fast as the one from 2010, which in turn won’t be as fast a 2020 model. The shoes that were produced earlier and what they produce now… there is a huge difference and that is why it will soon be possible to run under two hours. If things continue to progress in the same way, I see the marathon being run in 1:45—also because of the food they eat, the nutrition, the training, the technology of the shoe companies, the laboratory thinking… doping is forbidden of course but if you start to work in a lab, it changes things. You can find out what exactly an athlete needs and it is possible to run faster and faster every year. And the shoes… when you see them, it is unbelievable. I am witness to the evolution of shoe tech from 1991 until now. I have run with all those shoes and even the difference between the shoes from last year and this year is huge. I can see the difference. That is why don’t be surprised if the record is broken every year.

At the same time though, despite all the advancements, it needs a special discipline and Kipchoge has that. He is very disciplined; very hardworking. And he is using all kinds of training and tactics. And you can see the fruits of that in his runs. You have to watch everything. The way you train, eat, rest, how you compete, choose the competition, where, when… everything is important. Athletes like Kipchoge do that. He listens to the coach, the physio, the manager… using all kinds of ways to reach his goal. That is what it takes.

The other day, I had a chance to watch the Chicago marathon and Ruth Chepng’etich, who won the women’s race, ran in 2:14 (2:14:18). Very few men were in front of her—maybe the top 12—the rest were behind this lady. She ran amazingly, she was flying. She was close to the world record—she was on that pace until 41k—the last part was slightly uphill. That just put her off a little. The character of these new shoes is such that you need a flat circuit. Uphill, not so good.

What is your take on the whole technology debate in running? How much is too much?

Honestly, I had a chance to see the training of our athletes in Kenya. They don’t do what we used to do. Our training was much, much harder. I used to train many laps and many kilometers. These guys, they warm-up, they do an easy one and then they go back. When I compare to my training, for example, for 5000m and 10000m track sessions—the coach asked me to do five times 2000m and then five times 1000m, and with speed. If you don’t finish (1000m) by 2 minutes 26 seconds we were told ‘you are too slow’. The other day, I was watching them and they were running 2 mins 35 and the coach was like this is good. I was thinking, ‘Hey! what are you talking about… how is that good?’

But it is also isn’t just tech… What do you make of pacemakers?

From the beginning to the end, you have a pacemaker. Sometimes, I ask the organisers, ‘What are you doing?’ We were not finding a person who would take that role for the first 10 laps of the 25 laps. Now you have pacemaker for the entire race. You just have to follow. I did 10k in 26:10 on a treadmill. People were just watching. I was not even tired as compared to when I ran 26:22.75 in 1998. The treadmill was a pacemaker. It was that much easier. Start slowly, finish very fast.

What was it like to run in the old shoes compared to the new ones?

I remember in 2007-08 they told me there was a shoe (Supernova Adi Zero) that will help me break the world record. That shoe was a good one… a great one. But now, if you put that shoe against the ones from this year… completely different. It is not even a competition. I do some training in the gym and outside these days and just don’t get tired.

Do they tempt you into making a comeback?

Exactly. I am jealous. They should have had this when I was running. Why have they made this now! Sometimes, when I go outside, after 10 km (I usually run 10 km a day) I don’t feel tired. I need to sweat. My goal is to sweat. Imagine after 10k, you don’t feel tired. Sometimes, I don’t even sweat enough. The shoes are amazing.

What do you think about during a marathon? There is so much more action in the 5000m or even 10000m, but a marathon is different…

When you run 10,000m or 5000m, you run against an athlete. When you run a marathon, you run against the distance itself. And, of course, if you jump into the marathon and say you are running in Berlin or in America or even here, sometimes you start to think about home. Mostly, you look at a fellow athlete… his breathing, his style, his stepping. Sometimes you think about yourself… when do you start to kick off? Of course, this is all until you are tired. Once you are tired, you can miss the drink stations. You can struggle to lift your legs. It can become a mess. It is a challenge. But the good part about the marathon is that once it ends, you don’t blame… anyone or anything. Because it is a marathon. You give it everything.

How did you get so good at running long distances?

It is a combination really. A gift, the talent, my lifestyle as a child, the food we used to eat, the place I used to live in, the training. Well, endurance running is like that. You have to be gifted. When I say gifted, it is not just by birth. Any person who has lived from his early age in high altitude and eaten the right food… it all matters.

What would you eat?

Well, when I was in the countryside, I used to eat what was in the field. We used to drink milk and eat when we grew in the area. Sometimes, we would sleep without any. It doesn’t give you a big tummy or big muscle. But it has a fibre. Organic food. Not about carbohydrates. But the place you live in is most important. Because of a lack of oxygen, you develop lung capacity. Then when you turn to running, it is a big advantage. In a way, it is just a way of life. You don’t train to win; you just train to get around. Every day, you have to walk many kilometers to school, help the parents, or get water from the river. It is all training.

What seems to be true for Africa is also true of India… so why are all the champions coming from Africa?

Last time I was here in India, after checking everything out, I was telling people that the place where they live, the lifestyle they lead, the food they eat, the life in the countryside—everything very similar to Kenya and Ethiopia. But one thing is missing—you have to find the first champion from India. Once the first champion is found, believe me, others will follow. Everyone will start running. Did we have anyone before Abebe Bikila from Ethiopia? But after him, many took to the sport. People appreciated me after I won and then they started training, started racing and pushed forward. What we would need is for the government or the local government to organise a lot of races, between schools, between villages, between cities. Sooner or later, you can find the best marathon or 10000m runner from India. It will be only a matter of time. The first step is the hardest.

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