ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) — Fortunately for the New York City Marathon, Haile Gebrselassie won’t even talk about retirement.
The 37-year-old Ethiopian — widely considered the greatest distance runner ever — has set a host of world records, won two Olympics golds and captured eight world titles in events ranging from the 1,500 meters right up to the marathon.
Now, for the first time, he is running in the New York marathon. Seventeen years after his first world title, he says he’s in no mood to wind down his incredible career.
“Why should I retire? Why should I say I will retire in three or four years? You retire the very moment you utter those words,” Gebrselassie told The Associated Press at his office in the Ethiopian capital. “I still think about doing more.”
Gebrselassie clearly likes to keep busy.
That’s evident in his office on the eighth floor of his Alem Building, which is named after his wife. He has a string of business interests, including a car dealership, a cinema, real estate and a newly opened hotel to watch over.
He smiles a lot. He makes jokes. People leave his presence laughing. He likes to dress casually — he’s wearing a short sleeve black shirt — and always appears at ease.
Yet, you know every second counts here, as it does when he’s running. His cell phone doesn’t stop ringing. Aides constantly walk in with papers for him to sign. And there’s still time to train in his gym down on the ground floor, to run, and to set new marks.
Instead of considering retirement, Gebrselassie is targeting another world record in the marathon at the 2012 London Olympics. He will be 39.
The desire to keep going, to keep winning, is what has Gebrselassie finally working New York into his race schedule. This time, he’s happy to set aside his record chasing.
“Since I started the marathon I was focused on time,” said the current world-record holder and only human to break 2 hours, 4 minutes for the 42.2-kilometer (26.2-mile) distance. “I always looked for where is the best marathon to break the record. … Berlin, it was a good course, and Amsterdam is a good course. London and Dubai as well. (But) since I started the marathon, New York was the marathon I wanted to run.
“New York is a place to win, and you don’t need to break a record. In New York, winning is enough.”
Getting Gebrselassie, who is famous for carefully picking his events, to run the streets of the five boroughs has been a long journey for race organizer Mary Wittenberg.
“It’s been a more than 10-year recruiting effort,” the New York Road Runners CEO and president said. “We have always wanted the greatest ever in our event. And, in this case, Haile is the greatest ever.”
Wittenberg said that she and two of her colleagues from the NYRR traveled to Ethiopia in April this year to spend some time with Gebrselassie in his home country and continue their campaign. It finally paid off. Gebrselassie was won over.
She pointed to a five-hour road trip in Gebrselassie’s car as helpful in gradually persuading him to run.
“There was no one final ‘pitch’ or ‘hard sell,’” Wittenberg said, “just a constant drumbeat: ‘Come run New York!’”
Now that he has decided to go, Gebrselassie wants to win, not just run, on Sunday.
“If you go there and you think about losing, why should you go there?” Gebrselassie said. “I have to think about winning. I have to plan for a win.”
Road running has been Gebrselassie’s new challenge since the two-time Olympic 10,000-meter champion left the track following the 2004 Athens Games. He left with another four world titles in the 10,000, three indoor world titles in the 3,000 and one in the 1,500, along with a bunch of world records. There also was a bronze medal at the world cross-country championships and a gold in the world half-marathon championships. All proof of a unique ability to simply run fast, whatever the distance or the course.
He remembers sometimes running too fast.
“In 1998, when I broke the 10,000-meter record, I was in top shape. During the race I was flying and my manager, he said to me, ‘Slowly, slowly,’ because by the 8-kilometer mark the finish time was going to be 10 to 15 seconds faster than the record I broke,” Gebrselassie said. “That is very difficult for the next record.”
He turned to the marathon, the epitome of distance running, and won four straight Berlin marathons from 2006-09, breaking the world record in 2007 and again in 2008.
He’s also won the last three Dubai marathons. He won the Great North Run in Newcastle, England, on his first appearance this September and is now set for his New York debut.
Wittenberg won’t predict the outcome of the 2010 race. The field is competitive and in New York anything can happen.
“What I do know is that Haile is the greatest marathoner that has ever run on these streets of New York,” she said. “Haile is an amazing athlete. He is one of those people whose positive energy lifts everyone and everything around him.”
Behind his desk, sitting in his high-backed cream leather chair, Gebrselassie smiles again as talk turns to part of his influence on his country. His favored training ground in the forests just north of the city is now full of young Ethiopian runners hoping to follow his lead.
“Sometimes it is very difficult to train in the forests,” he said. “It looks like we need traffic officers to coordinate the training sessions and all the runners. Still, I would like to tell the youngsters to never give up … to keep running.
“If you think, ‘This is enough,’ it means you stop living,” Gebrselassie said. “That is why I am still thinking about doing more.”
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.