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Gebre keeps his promise

Duncan Mackay speaks with Haile Gebrselassie

Haile Gebrselassie leaned forward to study the pictures being shown on the television screen of his world record for 10,000 metres of 26mins 22.75secs. While others stared with amazement as it played a video tape of the 25-year-old Ethiopian's 13th world record, the man himself was looking for clues as how he could go even faster next time.

"Between 6000 and 7000 metres, things were not quite right," he said. "I don't know why but I was not running the way I wanted to. I woke up in the last kilometre. I did not realise I was not going fast enough but then I saw the time and I pushed a little harder."

But by taking an incredible 5.10 seconds off the time Tergat recorded in Brussels last August, the tiny Gebrselassie - just 5ft 4in in his spiked shoes - had kept the promise he made nine months earlier. On that night Gebrselassie lost his world record not only for the 10,000m but also for the 5000m. He was among the first to congratulate Tergat but, as they shook hands, Gebrselassie told him: "I shall regain it in Hengelo."

The Olympic champion was as good as his word, joining the legendary Emil Zatopek and Ron Clarke in becoming only the third man to set a world record for the distance three times. How he loves this quiet town in the north-east of Holland: it was his fourth world record here in five years. "People like Zatopek and Clarke are true giants of the sport. For me to join them is a great honour. I am very proud."

Gebrselassie races with the watchful, erect carriage of a soldier on guard duty. No head movement. No shoulder movement. No part of his serene, smiling face betrays him.

At the end of a Monday's race, when the effort of a world record is supposed to nearly tear a runner to pieces, you could peer into his eyes and not realise that his legs at the end had been churning out at sub-four-minute mile pace. To put Gebrselassie's new record into perspective, the 1972 and 1976 Olympic champion Lasse Viren would have been lapped.

These are extraordinary times for distance running. Gebrselassie and his Kenyan rivals are swapping world records these days like kids exchanging football cards. The world record for 10,000m has been broken eight times in the last five years by African runners as an incredible 46 seconds has been hacked off it. Gebrselassie has been at the forefront of this revolution, breaking the record on three occasions.

"When you want to break a world record it is not an easy job," he said. "You never know what will happen in a race. It is always a relief when you keep your promise."

The pace is likely to pick up still further during the next few weeks. Tergat, winner of a fourth World Cross Country title in March, is already plotting to regain the record. "I will go faster than I did last year," he said when told of Gebrselassie's record run. "So I have to think I can run faster than 26:22."

Gebrselassie, meanwhile, now has his sights trained on Komen's world 5000 mark of 12:39.74. "I'll run the 5,000 in Zurich in August because I always do that there," Gebrselassie said. "If Komen wants to run against me, he can."

Beyond that, Gebrselassie may move up to the marathon later this year. Given his unparalleled aerobic capacity and efficient running style, a time well inside the ten-year-old world record of 2hours 6mins 50secs set by his compatriot Belayneh Dinsamo appears possible.

For now, he remains modest, acknowledging that Tergat might regain the 10,000m record. "After all," he said, "the record was run by a man, not machine." The rest of the world is not so sure.