Haile Gebrselassie – He moved the goal posts

He Zoomed By With a Smile – Haile Gebrselassie

“Always behave like a duck- keep calm and unruffled on the surface, but paddle like the devil underneath.”
― Jacob M. Braude

Every time I set out for a long run, I go through several stages and so do my facial expressions. We begin with a systems check – where we do a toe to forehead body analysis. At this point, the face is pretty happy but focused as the mind ticks off the boxes and gives the run an “All Clear”. Next is the smooth sailing zone, where I’m all smiles. The next stage is either further joy where I’m told I look like a deranged happy idiot, or it’s pain management time where I look like a psycho analyst trying to distract my brain from the loads of discomfort in one location (knee perhaps) or another (ankle or hip). The final stage is desperation and that is exactly what my face displays. There is a bonus stage. I’ve only been there twice and in both cases on runs over 50k. I call it runner’s bliss – it’s where endorphins and neurons are having a massive celebration inside your head and you literally can’t help but cry … in a happy way.

But wait, what does all this have to do with today’s story? I’m getting there.

Today we’re celebrating Haile Gebrselassie. He is a pro or more accurately a god among pros. And he is responsible for putting many different types of expressions on his opponents’ faces – everything from pain, desperation, disbelief, and awe. And he did this while maintaining just one expression – a smile – and destroying his competition in every distance he took on. He literally established new norms with regards to what it takes to be great in the 5k, the 10k and the marathon. Haile Gebrselassie - smiling

Haile was inspired to take up running by his countryman and hero Miruts Yifter who won both the 5,000 and 10,000 meter events at the 1980 Olympics. Since the age of seven, he wanted to be like Miruts. He had a dream, he had talent, and then he applied his magic touch – discipline.

10 is a special number for Haile. He was born one of 10 children and he ran 10k to school and back every day. He carried 10 (estimate for creative purposes) books to school every day. This attributed to his unique running posture, with left arm crooked as if he is still holding on to those books. Rain or extreme heat, Haile ran the 10k … and a little longer on the weekends when the destination was the local market at the end of town. What Haile didn’t know growing up in Asselle, Ethiopia, is that his determination and drive would soon lead him to dominate the sport of running in the 10k and beyond.

He first shone on the world stage in 1992 at the Junior World Championships in Seoul. He won both the 5k and the 10k events. That was just a little taste of what Haile was about. The next year, he stepped up to men’s division and won the first of what would become four consecutive World Championships in the Men’s 10k race.  He worked harder and became simply awesome. In 1995, Haile started changing the standard for greatness in long distance running. He first lowered the 10k record by 9 seconds and in the same year adjusted the 5k record by over 10 seconds. All in all, Haile would establish over 20 new world records in his career.

But lets get back to that smile.

It was during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, where the extremely high humidity caused Haile to experience severe blistering. He put it simply “the skin came off my foot.” Nonetheless he entered and made the finals in the 10k event. There is footage with a shade of determination (or is it hiding of pain) before the race. Here is the shot from before the race.

Haile during the raceHe ran through the pain. He didn’t show weakness and he took home his first Olympic gold.

4 years later at the Sydney Olympics, the situation was even more dramatic. Haile was already scheduled for an operation as he had been nursing an foot injury for about a year. He came to the event only for moral support of his teammates. He changed his mind at the last minute and entered the race – hiding a limp around his competitors. The race came down to a dramatic sprint finish – Haile beating his arch-rival Paul Tergat by inches. The extent of his injury became clear as he limped up to the podium to receive his gold medal.

Haile during the race

After a successful track career, Haile took on the marathon and again reset the gold standard. He was the first person to run the marathon in under 2:04, twice setting a new record.

Haile is 41 years old these days and he no longer thinks about breaking records, but he is not against helping others do so. Look for him on April 13th at the London Marathon as he will be the main pacemaker to help break the world record. He will run the first 30k at world record pace as a guide for the top tier of runners.

So next time you’re in pain remember not to show your weakness against your adversaries. Smile … and zoom past your competition.

Want to learn more about Haile? Here is a pretty cool video: