Hail Gebrselassie, king of the road – Dan Silkstone(theage.com.au)

November 30th, 2008 Print Print Email Email

HE SMASHED the field but could not beat the clock, comfortably crossing the line in first place. But Haile Gebrselassie was most unhappy with his commanding win in the 15-kilometre Great Australian Run yesterday. (more…)

HE SMASHED the field but could not beat the clock, comfortably crossing the line in first place. But Haile Gebrselassie was most unhappy with his commanding win in the 15-kilometre Great Australian Run yesterday.

The best distance runner the world has seen toyed with a talent-studded field, brushing aside challenges from Kenyan Patrick Makau and an early battle with Craig Mottram, only to confess later he felt terrible, was suffering severe jet lag and had slept for only two hours on Saturday night.

“It was not easy,” he said. “I could not sleep the last two days because of jet lag. I expected to register a good time, but this morning I didn’t feel so good from lack of sleep. I should have come here five or six days ago, but I made a mistake in arriving only on Friday.”

It’s not easy being the greatest. The dual Olympic gold medallist was disappointed — given a fast course and ideal weather conditions — not to add a 27th world record to the swag he already holds. He finished in a brisk 42 minutes 40 seconds, more than a minute outside Felix Limo’s 15km world mark.

But Saturday night had been spent wide awake, watching television in his hotel room and reading. Hoping vainly for sleep to come. “I thought I could handle it (the travel) but it was not easy,” he said.

Competitors took his photo like star-struck fans and 4000 Melburnians took the chance to run, if not quite alongside the marathon world record-holder, then at least in the same race.

Gebrselassie professed himself delighted with the course, vowing to return next year, get his preparation right and have another dash at the world record he still hunts.

“It’s a beautiful city and a beautiful country,” he said. “Wherever you go there is a nice atmosphere. I would like to come back.”

Makau and Mottram stuck with the Ethiopian for the first five kilometres before the two Africans broke away 17 minutes in as the Australian fell away dramatically. Mottram was bitterly disappointed afterwards but this was not his favoured distance. The 5000 metres specialist could only take so much solace from that. Gebreselassie’s last five kilometres were his fastest of the race. The pace only got faster after the Australian flagged.

Makau stuck tight with Gebrselassie for two-thirds of the journey, surprising the Ethiopian. But in the end, the Kenyan was dismissively dropped. “At 11 kilometres I decided to stop him,” Gebrselassie said later, somehow both humble and imperious.

Mottram faded to cross the line fourth, former training partner and Beijing Olympian Collis Birmingham having passed his more famous rival along St Kilda Road. It was a significant moment for the 23-year old Australian, who is coached by Nick Bideau, from whom Mottram split last month.

“It was good to see them (Makau and Gebrselassie) for the whole distance,” Birmingham said after finishing his first 15km race.

“It shows that I am not too far off. But Buster (Mottram) has made a lot of changes … come January and February you’ll see he’ll be firing pretty well. That’s where the true race will be.”

Such was the appeal of Gebrselassie that many of the competitors crowded in front of the start to watch him set off before scurrying back after the hooter to get into the race field. Members of Melbourne’s Ethiopian community jostled at the finish line, draping their hero in his national flag.

“There are Ethiopians everywhere, but I didn’t know there were so many in Melbourne,” he said afterwards.

The pace, too slow for Gebreselassie’s liking , was still respectable. The first five kilometres were run in 14.47. The leaders hit 10km in 28.45. It was the same time run for the 10,000 metres on the track at Melbourne in 1956. This time they were on the road and still had five kilometres to go.

In the women’s race, Kenyan Catherine Ndereba dominated from the start, leaving the field far behind well before the race hit half distance. The dual world championship marathon winner shook Olympic gold medallist Constantina Dita-Tomescu, who eventually finished sixth, early in the race.

“It’s only four weeks since I ran my last marathon so I was just trying to pace myself,” Ndereba said. “My plan worked so well.”

Benita Johnson, who was expected to challenge her two better-credentialled rivals after a hard fortnight training at altitude, finished fifth. It was an unhappy end to a miserable year in which she lost her father and her marriage, underperformed in Beijing and battled a knee injury.

In tears afterwards, she resolved to keep working. “I’ve been training well but unfortunately the races aren’t coming together,” she said. “I’m coming off the back of a tough year and I guess it is just taking some time.”

Australian Lisa Weightman was third, behind Kiwi Alice Mason. Weightman was surprised to have beaten Johnson after training only lightly because she is preparing for her wedding next week.

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