After winning the men’s title at the inaugural IAAF World Road Running Championship, Eritrea’s Zersenay Tadesse was inundated with questions about when he will run his first marathon.
His time of 56:01 for 20km has only been bettered by Ethiopian running legend Haile Gebrselassie and a step up in distance would seem a natural direction for a man who concedes he does not have the lightening speed over the final 400m to guarantee success at major championships on the track.
However, a marathon is not yet in Tadesse’s plans.
“Definitely not for a year, at least, and almost certainly not until after the 2008 Olympics,” said Tadesse’s Spanish coach Jeronimo Bravo.
“Tadesse has got a lot to still achieve at shorter distances. His time here (in Debrecen) was very good but compared to what he has been doing in training here was almost jogging. He had no one to push him over the second half of the race. If someone is capable of putting him under pressure in, say, a half marathon, then I think we would see how fast he could really run.
“However, I would not put great expectations on Tadesse’s shoulders. For his first marathon, whenever that comes, people will inevitably be talking about the World record, but 2:07 or 2:08 would be perfectly acceptable.
“As everyone says, the marathon at the highest level only really starts after 30km and that’s not a distance Tadesse covers at the moment. All the tests that we have done suggest that Tadesse is capable of running under 2:05 one day but it is a long road to get to that point,” added Bravo
Tadesse’s feat in Hungary’s second city gave Eritrea its first World title of any description in major sport and provided the country with something to celebrate after many difficult times since it became independent in 1993.
However, the quietly-spoken Tadesse has always been a beacon of hope for Eritrea’s four million citizens.
“I know the people will be watching out for the result of this race and I want my victory to motivate the young people to try to do what I do,” said Tadesse, speaking in hesitant but rapidly improving English.
It was in 2004 that Tadesse first came to the attention of his countrymen, whether or not they were athletics aficionados, when he surprised many pundits by winning Eritrea’s first Olympic medal by finishing third in the10,000m behind Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele.
“The moment I crossed the line, I became Eritrea’s most famous sportsman,” commented Tadesse. “Maybe I’m the most famous person in the country outside of political circles, although there are some famous singers.”
He is now so popular among fellow Eriteans, even though he no longer lives there for much of the year, being based in the Spanish capital Madrid, that he nearly missed the start of a cross country race last year in Scotland thanks to signing autographs for his compatriots. “I didn’t even have time to warm up but I didn’t want to disappoint anyone!”
If the Olympics heralded Tadesse’s arrival as a serious rival to Bekele, then his silver medal at the 2005 World Cross Country Championships confirmed his growing stature despite only standing 1.60 metres in his running spikes.
More by luck than judgement, Tadesse had a relatively trouble-free childhood, living 200km from the Eritrean capital Asmara in an area that was one of the least affected by fighting.
He did not suffer the same depravations of Eritrean-born American marathon runner Meb Keflezighi, the 2004 Olympic silver medallist, who decided to flee his native country on foot, hiding in bushes until nightfall.
“My father had seven children but he was quite successful at selling the things that grew on our farm. If I had to describe what it was like when we were young, I would say it was regular. We were not a rich family we were not poor either,” reflected Tadesse before Sunday’s race.
By the second half of the 1990s, with peace and very modest prosperity generally restored to the country, Tadesse was able to take up cycling.
The remarkable runner from the country nestling by the Red Sea attributes some of his success to building up his endurance during his years as a teenager in the saddle.
“I only started running, at least seriously, when I was 19. Cycling was my first love and I dreamed of being a professional cyclist with one of the great teams in Europe, but I realised that is not a realistic possibility coming from Eritrea.
“But I did win a number of cycling races there. They were not over the long distances you have in professional races in Europe, more usually over 30 to 50 kilometres, mainly because we don’t have so many roads you can race on.
“My successes at cycling suggested to some local athletics people I might have good stamina and they invited me to compete in a race. I won that race, and I did well in the following races and I carried on running,” said the man who ran away from all his rivals in Debrecen.
Phil Minshull for the IAAF