When Gesa Krause was 16 years old, she came to a crossroads.
The promising German athlete could either stay at home in Dillenburg, remain content with life as it was, or uproot herself to Frankfurt and attend the renowned Carl von Weinburg sports boarding school, training under esteemed coach Wolfgang Heinig.
Though Krause felt a deep attachment to home, she knew, deep down, what she eventually wanted to become, so she made the move.
It was a decision which would define her career.
On Wednesday night in Beijing, Krause took a surprise bronze medal in the women’s 3000m steeplechase final at the IAAF World Championships, beaten to the line by a matter of inches by Kenya’s Hyvin Jepkemoi and Tunisia’s Habiba Ghribi.
After a slow early pace and a last-lap burn-up, the 23-year-old took the lead just 50 metres from the finish – largely due to her superior hurdling technique – but the German was edged on the run to the line by her more established rivals.
“It was all about finding that vibe and moment of knowing now is time to kick,” recalls Krause. “I’m just happy in the end that my legs were able to carry me over the line.”
The bronze felt just as good as gold.
“It’s definitely been the biggest success of my career,” she said. “I didn’t quite expect it but I don’t think anyone goes into a World Championships not thinking they have a tiny chance of winning a medal. Something like this is something you always work towards during hard training sessions.”
Krause was the only female German distance runner competing in Beijing, and though her background and development is positively Deutsch, her preparation for the event – running upwards of 180km (111 miles) a week – was more than a little Kenyan.
Back in 2010, at a time the world of distance running was being monopolised by the East Africans, Krause and coach Heinig came to another important decision: if you can’t beat them, join them.
“We’ve been going altitude training in Kenya since 2010 and it really changes the perception of how you see things,” says Krause. “You’re going there, taking a pair of trainers, some clothes, and you have nothing else. It’s all you need.”
It wasn’t so much the training – though Krause believes that today, it is indeed essential to train at altitude to succeed at distance running – but observing the lifestyle of the world’s best distance runners that lit a fire under her.
“It puts things into perspective,” she says. “It’s humbling to see those people trying to do it to escape poverty. They get up at six in the morning to go for a run and the fact that there’s no distraction around – no shopping mall, all you’re doing is just running – really helps you focus and helps you push through all those tough times.”
On her first visit five years ago, Krause struggled with the altitude, unable to run at a fraction of her usual pace, but with each visit since, she has felt the improvement.
Earlier this season, Krause had a breakthrough performance at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Monaco, running 9:20.15. It was the perfect run – fast enough to give her the confidence she was now a medal contender but modest enough that she would enter the race with no expectation placed on her shoulders.
Though some may have been intimidated by the might of the Africans, Krause’s Kenyan training excursions have stripped back the mystique surrounding their dominance.
“When you see those people running, you get really inspired,” she says. “I started training with them and going there helps an athlete to figure out they can do this if they work really hard and believe in yourself.”
Krause was just five days old when Dieter Baumann won gold over 5000m at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, and the German’s achievement was often brought up by her parents during Krause’s adolescence.
“Did it inspire me? Yes,” says Krause. “The fact I was born just days before, my parents said there has to be a relation somewhere. Today has proven that might be the case.”
With Krause, like Baumann, having interrupted the East African dominance, the question now is whether this will ignite the next generation of German, or even European, distance runners to believe they can succeed at the highest level.
“I hope this will inspire others to think they can beat the Africans,” says Krause. “I think the steeplechase is a good distance to do that. It’s a very technical event and the fact that Europeans and Americans have the benefit of the technical know-how for these events really helps.
“It’s getting more difficult with the longer distances because [the Africans] are training from their childhood and have to run every single day, and we have cars and are way more lazy in our normal lives, but I think this can help people to start running and believe that Europeans can do this.”
Last night, it was time for Krause to reflect on how that decision as a 16-year-old influenced her future while trying to come to terms with the impact of her performance.
“Once everything here has settled, I’ll be able to understand what I have achieved tonight,” she says. “This will take a few days to sink in.”
Cathal Dennehy for the IAAF