Saturday, October 10, 2009

Hail Haile

While tracking down something else on the web today, I came across an outstanding interview from two years ago conducted with Sebastian Coe regarding Haile Gebrselassie. It is one thing to get the run-of-the-mill media member's trite string of superlatives used in lauding a highly accomplished runner like Gebrselassie, but the thoughts of someone like Coe are truly cause to sit up and pay attention. Here are some of the parts of Coe's commentary that I found particularly compelling:

Q: What makes a good distance runner and how does Haile Gebrselassie match up?

Coe: The key attributes you're looking for is the synthesis of the mental strength and the physical dominance, and in both those areas Haile clearly scores very, very highly.

Q: You talk about mental processes. What are the kind of things he needs to keep in mind, calculations?

Coe: Good running is the ability to have a very well defined on-board computer. The ability to judge distances when running in traffic. The ability to recognize that things happen quite quickly in races - being too far off the pace, not instantaneously responding to a break, recognizing whether that break may be a temporary surge and not define the nature of the race. And the ability to make those judges quite quickly - he has had that in abundance for large parts of his career. You don't win world records without understanding that. What he also has is great physical presence and the ability to conserve energy. It's an econony of effort and it is, above all, rhythm. His rhythm rarely alters. Even when I watch the race and know instinctively that he is under pressure, he is a consummate poker player. You really can't tell from his face, or from the set of his shoulders, or from the way he places his feet on ground, even though must be under pressure. I've rarely seen him show outward signs of stress.

Q: You mentioned the way he places his feet on the ground -- his running technique. Can you explain what running on the balls of your feet means?

Coe: You hope all good athletes run on the balls of their feet. You don't want them coming down heel first. The perfect style is the foot to come down with a slight supination and on a tilt to the outside. You kiss the back of the heel on the ground and you move slightly, rotating inwards so the force and the central thrust is through the middle of the foot. Rarely do you see anybody at that level that doesn't have a good foot fall.

Q: For a runner what is the difference between racing for a world record and an Olympic medal?

Coe: The Olympics are a world apart from racing for a record. You put out of your mind pretty much what anyone else doing in the race. You have pacemakers who take you to certain points. In Haile's world -- pace-making is more pronounced. Too much emphasis on pace-making does sometimes ruin the narrative of the race, as it makes races more predictable. People tend to remember great races. I will remember one of the five best races I've ever seen on the track was the 10,000m final in Sydney when Haile and Paul Tergat slugged it out toe to toe, stride for stride, down the finish. The winning margin for Haile over Paul Tergat was less than winning margin for the men's 100m. So this was a spectacular race. Frankly, I can't tell you what the time was, whether it was a record, but people remember great races much more [than] world records.

Q: What are the memorable moments from the Atlanta Olympics in 1996?

Coe: That was a spectacular set of performances. We also know the track was very hard in Atlanta, hurt his legs and caused him a year of injuries afterwards. Winning the way he did in Atlanta and given the difficulty of the field and the relative hostility of the environment is one of his best performances. He will have his own view on which is the toughest -- probably the margin of victory in Sydney still causes him sleepless nights. From a personal of view, Sydney for me was his great moment.

Q: Do you think Haile has a technique which vexes opponents -- tucking in right behind them and then overtaking in the last minute?

Coe: Of course, that is absolutely the right tactic when you have a range of physical skills that Haile does. I mean Haile is the greatest distance runner as far as I'm concerned - of all time - comparisons will be made with Emil Zatopek, Vlaimir Kuts, Paavo Nurmi, Ron Clarke from Australia, but Haile is the most talented of them all by a distance. What makes him talented is that he has the leg speed of a very good 1500m runner. He also has the great ability, as all great distance runners have, to destroy the field with a change of pace over five strides, and that is what he has done time and time again. He has struck like a cobra, got that gap and he has had the necessary physical and mental strength. That is what has made him different from anything that has gone before.

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