LondonThe illustrious career of Ethiopia’s World and Olympic Marathon champion Gezahegne Abera is synonymous with sensational sprint finishes rather than emphatic victory margins.
The Ethiopian has taken six big marathon successes in his eleven starts at the distance - at the 2000 Olympics, 2001 World Championships, three at Fukuoka (99, 01, 02) and 2003 London Marathon - with a combined winning margin of just 27 seconds... and 20 of those came in one race, the Olympics!
But while he is becoming renowned for leaving his victories late, never before has the 24-year-old farmer’s son done it quite like he did in Sunday's Flora London Marathon (13 April). With five world class athletes entering the final straight of a big city marathon, for once you doubted whether his famous sprint finish would pull it off.
He actually looked beaten until he found another gear with 40m to go, ultimately winning by the slenderest of margins – Italy’s Stefano Baldini being given the same time as the World champion.
Clearly we shouldn’t have doubted him. Abera himself claims he never had any doubts.
“I was always confident I would win, even coming into the finish so close. Whenever I race, I remind myself of all the good training I have done and it gives me the confidence to win races.”
Abera has only really surprised himself once, with that Olympic success in Sydney three years ago, when he overcame a fall at 17km and defied the resulting pain in his knee to win by 20 seconds.
“That result really surprised me because I was not very experienced at the marathon then. It was also the biggest winning margin of my career, and what a place to do that … the Olympic marathon, it was very special.”
“I went away at 38 kilometres that day but usually I prefer to leave it until the finish.That is my style of running, my biggest asset, but I have no fears about running with other tactics. If people try to set a fast pace to drag the finish out of me, they will see I can go with them. I am confident I can cope with whatever is thrown at me.”
Abera took his first athletic steps from a young age, running to and from school. He says: “I used to run 12 kilometres per day, six in the morning and another six running home. I can not remember how old I was then but when I started at high school I had to run twice as far to school. And I was always fast!”
These days, Abera’s 25km per day is of a higher quality and more structured. “I train like most athletes, no different,” he says. “Sometimes I train alone, at other times in a group. I occasionally train with Haile Gebrselassie, which is great because he is one of the people who inspired me when I was first becoming interested in athletics.”
“At school we learned about the great Ethiopian athletes like Derartu Tulu and Haile, and it became my dream to be like them.”
Tulu and Gebrselassie, along with Abebe Bikila, have their faces displayed inside the five Olympic rings at Abera’s local stadium in Addis Ababa, and surely soon he will see his picture appearing alongside them. After all, what else need Abera do to be honoured? He is an Olympic champion, a World champion and now winner of arguably the world’s leading marathon.
London was his closest finish, although he once was beaten by a similar margin when second in the 2000 Boston Marathon (2:09:47, same time as the winner). But defeats are rare and he has not lost for two years, and he expects to keep his run of success going for some time.
“I am looking forward to defending my World title in Paris and after that the Olympics in Athens next year,” he says. “I can not say at this stage whether I will run a spring marathon next year, but I definitely want to return to London again in the future.”
While Paula Radcliffe is taking three weeks off after winning London, Abera says: “I have no aches so I will go straight back into training to prepare for the defence of my World title.”
Abera’s fiancée, Olympic marathon sixth placer Elfenesh Alemu, was eighth in London, and in future years his younger brother Aynaleme could also become a marathoner. He is the only other member of the family (three brothers, three sisters) who runs, but he has some way to go if he is to emulate Gezahegne (pronounced Geza-Hine).
“I love my running,” he says. “It has allowed me to improve the lifestyle of my family, although I have not really invested my earnings yet. For now I am just concentrating on running – and for me that is a mental as well as physical thing. I always get myself fully prepared mentally for the big races."
Abera’s 2:07:56 in London on Sunday was two seconds outside his PB of 2:07:54 he ran in Fukuoka in 1999, the first of three victories in that event. Such fast courses are to his liking and he says: “I go to races to win, but in future I may change my tactics. I am still only 24-years-old and have only been running seriously for six years, so when I am a bit older and stronger I may chase records as well.”
Abera’s half-marathon best of 60:30 is rather modest in world terms and we rarely see him race shorter distances but he explains: “There are so many good runners in Ethiopia at 10,000m, so I moved up to the marathon before I reached international standard. Therefore I have never represented my country on the track. But now the marathon has become my event, it suits my style of running.”
“I actually got my tactics wrong at the World Championships in Edmonton, when I took the lead too early at 39km, but I got away with it that day. I also went too early in Boston in 2000 and just got beaten, so while I go into a race with no set decision, you can understand why I leave it late.”
“But if an opportunity comes to attack the World record in future I will go for it. I do not put limits on what I can achieve and you go into every race hoping you can break the World record.”