Ghirmay Ghebreslassie caused one of the bigger upsets in Beijing last month for two reasons: 1) His marathon win at the World Championships delivered gold to Eritrea for the first time in the championships' history; 2) At 19-years-old, he became the first ever teen to win the event. We find out about his journey to the summit of a mountain called Road Running.
Not too cool for school
Born in the rural village of Kisadeka – around 115km south of the Eritrean capital city of Asmara – Ghebreslassie first started to run competitively in 2009. Impressed with his style when running around with classmates, a wily PE teacher encouraged the youngster to give athletics a crack. His parents feared sport might negatively impact on his outstanding academic life, but his astute teacher saw no such conflict.
“He told me that Zersenay Tadese [Eritrea's five-time world half-marathon champion and 2007 world cross country champion] was also a great student. That's what motivated me to see what I could do,” Ghebreslassie explains.
His parents, in particular his father, who served for his country during Eritrea's domestic conflict, remained stubborn in the belief that their eldest son should not run. He was threatened to be pulled out of school should he set foot on the track.
But young Ghebreslassie was insistent and defied his father to compete. In his first competition he won 3000m gold and 5000m silver at a schools event. Over time, his father – sensible guy – saw the value in his son competing in athletics.
“Step by step he started to follow my running more closely,” says Ghebreslassie. “Since 2012 he has been very supportive.”
These books were made for runnin’
Despite growing up in a rural farming community with goats and cows and living 7km from school he, unlike so many African runners, only began running to and from school after getting involved in athletics.
“I only started that system when I heard the great runners like Tadese and Haile Gebrselassie used to do that,” the 19-year-old admits.
Ghebreslassie is a huge football fan (in fact when we spoke to him in his Beijing hotel room he had soccer on the TV in the background). He became a Manchester United supporter after being bewitched by the boastful brilliance of former Red Devil Christiano Ronaldo.
“I remember watching Christiano score many times for Man United, and that showed me for the first time what football means,” he recalls. “I still follow them today.” These days he cites Wayne Rooney as one of his favourite United players.
Hit the road, Gheb
His athletics career took a big step forward in 2012 when he competed overseas for the first time. He placed ninth in the junior race at the African Championships in Cape Town and clocked 28:33.37 over 10,000m at the FBK Games in Hengelo. The following year he finished seventh in the junior race at the 2013 IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Poland. But injuries pushed him in a different direction.
“I talked with my agent and we decided to stop track that year to prepare for the road,” Ghebreslassie recalls. “I wondered if the injuries came from the training system, so I stopped running in spikes and only ran in flats. I've never had the problem since.”
Ghebreslassie also says a factor in his switch to the roads was winning on his half-marathon debut in 1:00.09 in Paderborn, Germany, just six days after he picked up the world XC crown.
An untimely bout of sickness hampered his preparations for last year's World Half Marathon Championships in Copenhagen, but he still managed to finish seventh in 1:00.10, just over a minute behind the race winner Geoffrey Kamworor of Kenya.
Last October he was asked to pace the Chicago Marathon through to 25km. He went through halfway within 14 seconds of the target time and felt so strong he decided to finish, placing sixth in 2:09:08.
“I was being called back with everyone saying 'Don't worry, Ghirmay, you have done your work for today,' but it was my decision to finish,” he adds.
Ghebreslassie (right) won team gold medal at the 2014 World Half Marathon Championships alongside Samuel Tsegay, Zersenay Tadese, Nguse Amlosom and Samson Gebreyohannes
Give me strength
In January this year, just three weeks before the Dubai Marathon and “never been in such [a] condition before”, pain in Ghebreslassie’s right leg caused him to miss 11 days of training. He went in to the race undercooked, “never been in such condition before,” as he puts it. He dropped out after 25km.
In April he was able to put in a better showing at the Hamburg marathon, where despite getting his nutritional plan wrong, he placed second in a PB 2:07:47. After Hamburg he reined back the speed work in favour of longer runs to strengthen his body for the demands of Beijing.
“Carrying out too much speed work makes me light in the body,” explains Ghebreslassie, who is coached by the wonderfully-named Dutchman Veron Lust. “It is helpful to have a bit more weight.” We won't argue with that.
Sleepless in Beijing
Expectations started to mount leading into the 2015 World Championships. His training partners – which include 2:09.36 marathoner and eighth place finisher in this year’s London Marathon Kibrom Ghebrezgiabhier – told Ghebreslassie they believed he could win, though tried not to put too much pressure on him. The day before the marathon he gave an interview to an Eritrean radio station saying he would never give up and he hoped to win gold. Yet that night – with the interview fresh in his mind – he could not sleep.
“I was thinking about the preparations, the expectation of the people,” he recalls. “I've never been like that before a race and then a little bit after 3am somebody woke me for breakfast.”
In Beijing, Ghebreslassie finished a full forty seconds ahead of silver medallist Yemane Tsegay of Ethiopia
Our Eritrean hero may have been tired from his rotten night's sleep, but he left his rivals dozing during an outstanding run in the heat and humidity of Beijing. While Kenya's world record holder Dennis Kimetto and former world record holder Wilson Kipsang withered in the blistering morning sun, Ghebreslassie made his winning bid with 3km remaining to push clear of Ethiopia's Yemane Tsegay.
“Looking at his running mechanics and how he was breathing I knew it was different to me, so I made another kick and he didn't follow me,” remembers Ghebreslassie. He stopped the clock in 2:12:28 to become Eritrea's first ever gold medallist at a World Championships.
A hero back in Eritrea, Ghebreslassie is hopeful his triumph in Beijing is only the start for what he hopes will be a momentous marathon career. He has not ruled out another marathon later this year and one next spring, but his next big target is the Rio Olympics next August.
“I hope my body will stay with its energy and I try to give the marathon in Rio a good try,” he says.