Helsinki, FinlandWhen you are going to race in a city famous for cross-country ski-ing, where better to train than a ski resort?
That was the blindingly simple formula which helped Jaouad Gharib stage a successful World Championship marathon defence for Morocco in Helsinki at the 10th IAAF World Championships in Athletics.
Gharib retained the title he had won in Paris with 2:10:10, and was soon taking the ritual congratulatory phone calls from home. Only this time there was a difference.
Running king says ‘well done’
The last time a Moroccan won a global athletics title, it was the king who called immediately. That was when Hicham El Guerrouj took the Olympic 1500m title in Athens. When he won four successive World 1500m titles, the king was also quick to phone, but when Gharib staged his successful marathon defence in Helsinki, it was El Guerrouj who was first on the line.
"He phoned to say I'd run a good race, and congratulated me," said the 33-year-old, who often trains at Ifrane, El Guerrouj's Atlas Mountains base. "The president of our federation also called."
Gharib overcame stomach pains which kicked in at 25k, almost derailing his plan to throw down the gauntlet and run hard over the final 12 kilometres.
"It was not my legs that were tired," he said, "but I had pain in my stomach. The marathon is a very tough race, but I am in very good shape."
That shape was honed in the Atlas. His build-up began with a month in the town where he was born, eldest of four children. It lies at 800 metres in the province of Khenifra, famous as the nation which was first to sign a treaty with the fledgling USA in 1777. But Gharib was making no allies on the Finnish roads.
He had built his form progressively. After 30 days in Khenifra, he moved up to Ifrane, at 1800m for three weeks, and then spent 24 days at 2000 metres, in Michlifen, best-know Atlas ski resort, some 30 kilometres from Ifrane. It is where his king skis, and it is where the king of the road prepared his lungs for the trick of disappearig into Finn air.
He came down from the heights two weeks before the triumphant sixth marathon of his career.
Gharib works outside the Moroccan federation system, who seem happy to let him do his own thing. He is on his third coach. Until 2003 he was under the wing of Brahim Boutayeb, the Seoul Olympic 10,000m champion. Then he moved to Qostal Abdelghani. Now he is with Mohammed Moha, a member of the national schools physical education inspectorate. He is in no doubt about his protege's competitive instincts: "He is an assassin," he said.
Too much work before Athens
Gharib was bitterly disappointed with eleventh place in the Athens Olympics. "He worked too hard in the final two weeks," said team leader Adel Kada. Gharib, it seems, was trying to get back into shape, after a groin injury. "I was not in the best shape possible," he agreed.
He admitted he had been very stressed and nervous before this defence, because he knew he was in the shape of his life.
Coach Moha confirmed nerves had prevented him sleeping. "He had what we call a 'white night' - no sleep at all before the race," he said afterwards. "All he could do was lie awake and run the race through in his head. Over and over. And every time he lost."
Despite the stomach pains, Gharib said: "I was not scared, and I was sure I was going to win when I was on my own at 29k."
He said he was encouraged by a Sweden-based Moroccan fan who had run alongside, at a remarkable pace and for some time, carrying a large Moroccan flag tied to a pole with a child's hobby horse head on the end. "Maybe we have a future runner there," said Gharib. "It was good to see a Moroccan believing in my victory. He, and the support of the crowd, gave me the power to win."
In recent years, 1500m men El Guerrouj and previously Said Aouita, have captured the minds of his countrymen, but the marathon was the start of Moroccan athletics success. Everyone remembers the Ethiopian Abebe Bikila, who won Olympic gold in 1960. Few recall Rhadi ben Abdesselem who was runner-up, 25 seconds behind. Abdesselem was his country's first Olympic athletics medallist, but there was no sense of following in his footsteps. Gharib used to work in a menswear shop, and played football, until he was 22. It was a late start in running. "Then one day I saw the Marrakech marathon on TV. I thought: 'I want to do that.' So I started training.”
"It was four or five years before I had any success, but I did not think it was long at all."
Gharib is a private man, often training alone. Before the medal ceremony, he was clutching the hand of Fatima, a doctor. Were they married? He shook his head.
Were they due to be married? Another shake of the head.
So when? "When she decides," he said simply.
But he is quite sure on one thing. If his good form persists, he has no intention of stopping. "I would like to defend this title again," he said, in the hope of going one better than Spaniard Abel Anton, only other winner of two World marathon golds.
"And if I am still in shape, maybe the Beijing Olympics."
Doug Gillon - The Herald - for the IAAF