Like many athletes, Saif Saaeed Shaheen’s goal at tomorrow evening’s Memorial Van Damme is a new personal best. The problem for the engaging 23-year-old Kenyan-born Qatari is that his best, the 7:53.63 steeplechase World record he set on this track two years ago, is one he’s virtually put out of reach, and finding the requisite assistance is proving increasingly difficult.
“The pacemakers haven’t been able to do a good enough job,” said Shaheen, who will be making his third assault of the season – and his last – on his record. In Athens on 3 July, he clocked 7:56.32 and in Zurich a week ago, he reached the line in 7:56.54, respectively the sixth and ninth fastest performances ever, solidifying his reign over the all-time list. Six of the history’s fastest ten performances belong to Shaheen.
In Zurich last week, he said, “I had pressure from the manager, from my coach also. He told me not too push until 2000 metres, so I was just waiting until 2000. If they had told me, ‘if I see the pacemakers slowing down, you can go’, then it might have been different.”
After the pace slowed, Shaheen said, “It was almost impossible to keep the rhythm. I will just have to be more aware, and careful (about maintaining the pace).”
In his record attempt here last year, the requested pacing work went somewhat awry and he found himself alone just four-and-a-half minutes into the race. He still reached the line in 7:55.51, the third fastest ever.
This time around Spaniard Cesar Perez will pace the first three laps, while the search continues for the second ‘rabbit’ who can assist with the 5:15 to 5:16 pace for 2000 metres that Shaheen has requested.
“There aren’t too many candidates for sure,” said meeting director Wilfred Meert.
With his total dominance of the event in recent years – he won in Zurich last weekend by more than a full straight of the track, nearly 20 seconds, a margin seemingly unprecedented in the world’s finest meetings – Shaheen had hinted in the past that he would turn his attentions to other events this summer, a move that was stifled by an early spring injury.
“I had intended to run more 5000s this summer, but I had a tendon problem and lost lots of training,” Shaheen said. “I didn’t train for one-and-a half months before the World Cross Country Championships, and struggled there, and also after that I didn’t train for one-and-a-half months until mid-May. And that affected my training, and after I started my training I didn’t train the way I expected.”
Shaheen said he prefers the flat distances, if for no other reason, to have some company over the waning laps of a race.
“When you run with people you feel that tension. Especially that last two or three laps.”
“But nowadays in the steeple, you run alone, you just get bored running alone the last two or three laps. It’s good to win, yes,” he said, “but sometimes it’s good that there are others to give you good motivation.”
But for now, it’s quite likely that Shaheen will find himself very much alone yet again, much as he was two years ago after the 2000 metre mark. Then, he said, it was the sell-out crowd of 47,000 that pushed him to the World record. While adequate pacemakers may be in short supply, Shaheen can certainly count on fan support. Yet again, the meeting, this year celebrating its 30th Anniversary, is sold-out.
Bob Ramsak for the IAAF