Distance Thunder In races of 3,000 meters or more, no record is safe from the otherworldly onslaught of Ethiopia's Haile Gebrselassie and Kenya's Daniel Komen

July 20, 1998
July 20, 1998

Table of Contents
July 20, 1998

World Cup

Distance Thunder In races of 3,000 meters or more, no record is safe from the otherworldly onslaught of Ethiopia's Haile Gebrselassie and Kenya's Daniel Komen

He said he was sorry. Last Thursday in the unending purple
daylight of a Norwegian summer evening, 25-year-old Haile
Gebrselassie of Ethiopia ran the seventh-fastest 3,000-meter
race in history. He had recklessly chased the two-year-old world
record of Kenya's Daniel Komen until less than two laps
remained. Then, after measuring his pain and his waning pace, he
allowed three pursuing Kenyans to pass him while he gathered
himself to blister the final 250 meters and win in 7:27.42, a
time that would have broken the world record just four years ago
but on this night fell seven seconds short. Against a 22-man
field that was deeper in world-class talent than the NBA is in
big egos, Gebrselassie turned a failed, agonizing record attempt
into a macho, just-win sprint and survived.

This is an article from the July 20, 1998 issue

For this he felt the need to apologize. He stood on the victory
podium and said to the crowd of more than 18,000 that was stuffed
into Oslo's ancient Bislett Stadium, "I am sorry. I will come
back next year and try again." The fans did not laugh, they
applauded, as if to say, Damn right you will.

This is where distance running finds itself, at a mind-bending
intersection of talent, innovation and courage that has
transformed the unthinkable into the expected. In the last four
years the world record in every men's race from 3,000 meters
(slightly less than two miles) to 10,000 meters (6.2 miles) has
been destroyed. The records in these five events--including the
steeplechase--have been broken a total of 22 times. Leading the
way have been two of the most stunning talents ever to wear
spikes, Gebrselassie and Komen. The simplest sport of all (first
to the finish wins) has skipped evolutionary steps, raising
eyebrows and suspicions. Nothing suggests that the
record-breaking is soon to finish, other than common sense,
which has become unreliable. "You'd have to think that these
guys are approaching the limits of human endeavor," says Brendan
Foster, a British runner who held the world record at 3,000
meters from 1974 to '78. "Of course, we've been saying that for
a while, haven't we?"

In the United States, this revolution has gone largely
unnoticed. Komen, Gebrselassie and the other record-breakers are
distant waifs with odd names, running overseas during the
American afternoon and appearing in microscopic type in the next
day's newspaper. They are running extraordinarily fast, yet
their times are meaningless to a mass audience of mainstream
U.S. sports fans that views elite distance running as fast
jogging. News flash: These are not fun runs.

Germany's Dieter Baumann, the 1992 Olympic 5,000-meter gold
medalist and along with American Bob Kennedy one of two
non-Africans to run under 13 minutes for 5,000 meters, puts pace
in layman's terms. "If you can't run 100 meters in a little more
than 15 seconds, and I doubt if many people can," Baumann says,
"then you can't run with me for 5,000 meters [3.1 miles],
because that's what I'm doing. I'm running 50 100-meter sprints
at just over 15 seconds each." How does it feel to push your
body this hard? Says Kennedy, "When I'm running at these paces,
I'm on such an edge that if I went one half-second faster per
lap, I'd feel like I was going to collapse. From 800 meters on,
it hurts. A lot. It's nothing like what most people think of as
distance running. It's basically sprinting."

The wave of extraordinary distance performances began in August
1994, when miler Noureddine Morceli of Algeria stepped up in
distance and ran 7:25.11 for 3,000 meters (roughly the
equivalent of an 8:01 two-mile), breaking by nearly four seconds
the world record held by Moses Kiptanui of Kenya. In the late
'80s, Said Aouita of Morocco had become the first runner to
break 7:30 for the 3,000 and 13 minutes for the 5,000, but
Morceli's time was the first to drop jaws.

The performances of Gebrselassie and Komen have dropped them
much farther. Since '94, Gebrselassie has broken the 5,000 and
10,000 records seven times, and in June he took back the 5,000
mark (12:39.36) from Komen and the 10,000 mark (26:22.75) from
Kenya's Paul Tergat. Komen, 22, holds the 3,000 record and is
the only man in history to have broken eight minutes for two
miles (7:58.61; each of his miles was faster than Roger
Bannister's legendary first sub-four). "You have many runners
racing very fast right now," says Baumann. "But really you have
two runners who are pulling the rest along."

Gebrselassie and Komen were both raised at altitude in African
cultures with rich distance-running heritages. Both men have
dry, almost clinical approaches to running times that others
consider unfathomable.

The similarities stop there. Gebrselassie, 25, is 5'4" and
barrel-chested, effusive and quick to laugh. Although he is
better suited to longer distances than Komen, he possesses the
most lethal, sudden, change-of-gears finishing kick in the
sport. Komen is 5'7" and slender, guarded and evasive. His
flowing, consistent stride makes him a threat to someday hold
records at distances from 1,500 to 10,000 meters, a range of
domination that has never been approached. "He's just begun to
explore his abilities," says training partner Martin Keino, the
son of former Kenyan great Kip Keino.

Gebrselassie and Komen are cordial to each other, but they're
not friends. Kenyan, Ethiopian and Moroccan distance runners are
fierce rivals, like Blue Devils and Tar Heels or Seminoles and
Gators. The athletic enmity between Komen and Gebrselassie runs
especially deep. In a 5,000-meter showdown last August in
Zurich, Gebrselassie let Komen lead for nearly the entire race
before exploding past him in the final stretch. "Daniel was
disappointed," says Komen's agent and coach, Kim McDonald. "If
all Haile wanted to do was win the race, he did absolutely the
right thing. It would have been sporting for him to lead a lap
or two." Largely for this reason they haven't raced each other
since and might not meet this summer.

Although their record binge may be dismissed as the product of
some faceless African invasion, that is simplistic at best.
Africans have been running international distance races--and
setting records in them--since the '60s. Now three things have
changed: economic opportunity, racing style and training
philosophy. Komen's sport has no more in common with Kip Keino's
than Barry Sanders's has with Paul Hornung's.

Keino and his peers ran for free. Henry Rono, the great Kenyan
who set records across a wide range of distances in the late
'70s and '80s, ran for peanuts. Komen's income last year
approached $1.5 million, and he and Gebrselassie each can earn
as much as $50,000 for appearing in one race. McDonald, a
41-year-old former British runner, was the first agent to mine
the wealth of talent in Kenya, beginning in 1990, and he remains
the most successful at it. "The pool was enormous, so it was a
matter of motivating the running population," says McDonald, who
regularly attends all-comers meets in Kenya in search of future
stars. "The motivation is money and the opportunity to live a
better life." Komen has bluntly said that he runs "for the
money," and Kennedy, who is also represented by McDonald and
trains for much of the year with Kenyans, likens the Kenyan
running dream to that of the inner-city American youth who
strives to win a basketball scholarship or play in the NBA. The
competition to attain this dream is predictably fierce. "The
Kenyan dropout rate is very high," says Baumann, who has spent
five consecutive winters training in Kenya.

Races beyond a mile were once sit-and-kick chess games. Now they
are sustained agony, with each man clinging to the racer in
front of him. "It's just bam, ticking off fast quarters right
from the start," says Mark Nenow, who holds the U.S.
10,000-meter record of 27:20.56, set in 1986 and now nearly a
minute off Gebrselassie's world record. In establishing that
mark, on June 1 in Hengelo, the Netherlands, Gebrselassie ran 24
consecutive laps between 61 and 65 seconds and then kicked,
tearing home in 58.1 for the last 400.

Such brutal racing requires tougher preparation. Martin Keino has
listened to his father's war stories. "The training is much more
difficult now than it was 20 years ago," he says. Kenyans were
once famous for running endless 400-meter intervals. In the days
before winning the 5,000 at last year's world championships,
Komen did the following session: 1,600 meters in 3:55, 1,200
meters in 2:54, 800 meters in 1:56 and 400 meters in 56 seconds,
with a three-minute rest between each run. Says McDonald, "The
old philosophy was that you trained in a comfort zone and counted
on the adrenaline of the race to make you run faster. That
doesn't work. You have to train as hard as you want to race, or

Gebrselassie often runs 400s. Tons of them, and at a killing
pace. In preparation for his 10,000 record, he would run at least
15 400s in 56 seconds each with a one-minute recovery in between.

As with most dramatic improvements in track and field, the drop
in distance times has been viewed by some as the product of
performance-enhancing drugs. The performance enhancer of the
moment is said to be EPO (erythropoietin), a genetically
engineered substance that stimulates the production of red blood
cells and thus mimics blood doping by increasing the
oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood. Without mentioning EPO,
former U.S. 10,000-meter record holder and three-time New York
City marathon champion Alberto Salazar voices the skepticism of
many observers. "I believe that there can always be that one
great person, that Superman who can run 45 seconds faster than
Henry Rono," says Salazar. "But all these people running so
fast? That's incomprehensible to me."

EPO is a banned substance, but there is no reliable test for it.
One popular theory is that once a test for EPO is developed,
distance records will level off as athletes stop using it en
masse. The model sport for this theory is the shot put, in which
the top 21 throws in history were all made before 1991, when
testing for that event's then drugs of choice (mainly anabolic
steroids) became more effective.

But assuming Gebrselassie, Komen and the rest of the elite
distance runners are in fact clean--and they say they
are--expect them to go ever faster. Komen believes he can soon
run 12:24 for 5,000 meters (just under 60 seconds for each of 12
1/2 400-meter laps), and Gebrselassie says of his latest 10,000
record, "It is not so fast. It was not so hard to run."

Somewhere a young boy is hearing of this and training for his own
future. In Kenya. Or in Ethiopia. Or perhaps even in the United
States. The message should be clear: Whatever you are doing, do
more. However fast you are running, run faster.

COLOR PHOTO: MARK THOMPSON/ALLSPORT HAILE COMPETITIVE Gebrselassie's 3,000 time in Oslo would haveset a record in '94 but was seven seconds off the current mark. [Haile Gebrselassie in race]COLOR PHOTO: MIKE POWELL/ALLSPORT [Daniel Komen running]COLOR CHART: JARED SCHNEIDMAN [Chart showing record times of two mile, 3,000, 5,000 and 10,000 meter runs]

Fast and Faster

Led by Gebrselassie and Komen (right), runners from Africa have
been breaking distance records at a stunning pace, as these
numbers show.

3,000 meters
Record came down just over six seconds in 18 years; it has come
down more than eight seconds in the past six years.

7:35.10 Brendan Foster (Great Britain) 1974
7:32.10 Henry Rono (Kenya) 1978
7:29.45 Said Aouita (Moroccco) 1989
7:28.96 Moses Kiptanui (Kenya) 1992
7:25.11 Noureddine Morceli (Algeria) 1994
7:20.67 Komen (Kenya) 1996

Two miles
Record came down about 1.5 seconds in 20 years; it has come down
nearly 14 seconds in the past five years.

8:14.00 Lasse Viren (Finland) 1972
8:13.68 Foster 1973
8:13.51 Steve Ovett (Great Britain) 1978
8:13.45 Aouita 1987
8:12.17 Khalid Skah (Morocco) 1993
8:09.01 Kiptanui 1994
8:07.46 Gebrselassie (Ethiopia) 1995
8:03.54 Komen 1996
8:01.08 Gebrselassie 1997
7:58.61 Komen 1997

5,000 meters
Record came down about nine seconds in 13 years; it has come
down nearly 18 seconds in the past four years.

13:06.20 Rono 1981
13:00.41 David Moorcroft (Great Britain) 1982
13:00.40 Aouita 1985
12:58.39 Aouita 1987
12:56.96 Gebrselassie 1994
12:55.30 Kiptanui 1995
12:44.39 Gebrselassie 1995
12:41.86 Gebrselassie 1997
12:39.74 Komen 1997
12:39.36 Gebrselassie 1998

10,000 meters
Record came down about 15 seconds in 15 years; it has come down
45 seconds in the past five years.

27:22.47 Rono 1978
27:13.81 Fernando Mamede (Portugal) 1984
27:08.23 Arturo Barrios (Mexico) 1989
27:07.91 Richard Chelimo (Kenya) 1993
26:58.38 Yobes Ondieki (Kenya) 1993
26:52.23 William Sigei (Kenya) 1994
26:43.53 Gebrselassie 1995
26:38.08 Salah Hissou (Morocco) 1996
26:31.32 Gebrselassie 1997
26:27.85 Paul Tergat (Kenya) 1997
26:22.75 Gebrselassie 1998

Baumann puts his race in layman's terms: "I'm running 50
100-meter sprints at just over 15 seconds each."