My running record is not a glorious one. Motivated more by a desire for self-preservation than glory, and vested of a running style my mother enthusiastically compared to someone in the throes of a particularly painful bowel movement, I brought up the back of the field across any distance. With neither speed nor endurance to call upon, my running career reached its nadir at an inter-house athletics meet, where for reasons based more on a particular teacher’s sadistic sense of humour than my aptitude for the event, I was selected for the 800 metres.
That race remains the only one in the school’s history in which an athlete was lapped over 800 metres.
I’ve steered clear of running since then, sleeping through the start of the only Gun Run I’d entered, finishing half a dozen Two Oceans marathons on the back of the media bus, and travelling to the New York Marathon last year as team manager to Mike Dabrowski, Elana Meyer and Ryan O’Connor, a job that entailed watching the Knicks play at Madison Square Garden while my charges tramped through the bitterly cold streets of the Big Apple. Dabrowski and O’Connor did drag me off on a five-mile run through Central Park; Dabrowski was mesmerised by the beauty of Central Park in full autumnal colour, and the ability of a gentle jog to reduce me to red-faced silence.
All of which underlines the gap in ability between myself and the man I went for a run with on Tuesday evening through Zoo Lake in Johannesburg: one Haile Gebrselassie. Two Olympic gold medals and four world championship titles in the 10 000 metres, four straight Berlin Marathon wins, victory in his first nine half marathons, 27 world records in all – up against one of the few men in history to have been lapped in a two-lap race. If Gebrselassie was nervous on Tuesday night, he was hiding it well…
In truth, it was a light evening run, rather than a head to head race between myself and the diminutive Ethiopian who used to run 10 kilometres to school each day as a child, and the same distance back again. Gebrselassie, in the country for a couple of days with adidas, was running with a group of competition winners who’d won the unique opportunity to race with one of the long distance greats, and autographs and photos that peppered the evening underscored the delight of the fortunate group assembled for the trot round Zoo Lake.
They weren’t the only ones thrilled at having Gebrselassie in town: as the promised gentle run gathered pace, regular runners out for an evening jog were stopped in disbelief at the sight of the Olympic great leading his group through the park. I was in greater danger of being stopped for medical attention, particularly as former New York Marathon champion Hendrik Ramaala had joined the group, nudging the pace a little higher. But I kept close enough to watch Gebrselassie run, and to take in what was a remarkable opportunity.
Grace would be the wrong way to describe him run – the crooked left arm, suggestive of someone carrying books under it on the way to school, has been remarked upon often enough. But there’s an ease of motion as Gebrselassie glides across the ground, the simple stride that’s won him the fame and fortune that marks him out as so accomplished an athlete. Victories around the world against celebrated contemporaries, records demolished to general astonishment, distances from 1 500 metres to marathon taken on and conquered: as running partners on a warm Tuesday evening in Johannesburg go, it’s all downhill from here on.
But it wasn’t just running alongside Gebrselassie that was so stirring; it was also listening to the man with a keen social conscience and designs on a post-athletics career in politics. Casting an eye on a large beer-fuelled braai taking place nearby, he made a point of questioning why it was happening on a Tuesday evening, and sharing his own philosophy on the problems the world is facing: quite simply, people are too focused on enjoying themselves, and not willing to work hard.
It’s the reverse of that that fuels the career of a successful long distance runner, and with London 2012 in his sights, we haven’t seen the end of the Ethiopian in professional competition, despite suggestions of retirement after last year’s withdrawal through injury midway through the New York Marathon. His natural running ability will see him through another decade or two of running as far as he wants, although you suspect Gebrselassie has designs beyond the world of running. With Olympic medals, world championship titles, marathon victories and world records behind him, there’s not much left for him to achieve as a runner. And he’s also seen off the challenge of Nicholl in the adidas Zoo Lake five-kilometre challenge – although I suspect that might mean slightly more to me than it will to a titan of long-distance running.