Monday, 8 November 2010

Womble vs. The World

Yesterday saw probably the greatest race on Earth, the New York City Marathon, end in triumph for a beginner and tragedy for a veteran. Ethiopian Gebre Gebremariam took the win in 2:08:14 - taking home $170,000 for his first marathon at age 25. 10 miles earlier his countryman Haile Gebresalassie, the 37-year old world record holder (2:03:59 at Berlin 2008) pulled up with a knee injury and dropped out of the race. 

At a press conference later in the day Haile announced his retirement from distance running, ending an extraordinary career which included 25 world records at every distance from two miles to the marathon and a huge collection of Olympic and World Championship medals on the track. He's become synonymous with the marathon and with distance running in general - so much so that he was paid a reported $400,000 just to start the race in NYC. Like most marathon runners, Haile's career has been underpinned by championing charitable and grassroots sports causes in Ethiopia and internationally. He's planning on entering politics now that he's retired from racing. His biography is unimaginatively but accurately titled 'The Greatest'. I miss him already. Full coverage of his race and retirement is available here on

Haile announcing his retirement yesterday. Photo (without permission...) from
This has got me thinking: yesterday the greatest marathon runner in the history of the world announced his retirement, choking back the tears as he explained how he just can't do it anymore. Yet for some reason the news coverage was all about a Chilean miner who finished the race in a literally pedestrian 5:40. Imagine that David Beckham retired tomorrow, and the BBC devoted their breakfast coverage to some newsworthy but basically ordinary blokes having a kickabout in the park. Unthinkable.

This is what I love about the sport. Haile is amazing, but the mystique of the marathon is the challenge of the distance, not necessarily the speed of its completion. Anyone with the courage and confidence to cross the start line, facing 26.2 grinding, painful miles stretching out in front of them has already achieved more than the millions of 'normal people' sat at home enjoying the race from the sofa. All 45,000 runners who started the race in Staten Island on Sunday faced the same challenge, and most saw it through. 

That's why the sport belongs to the masses - the fun runners, the fundraisers, the club runners, the dedicated pavement pounders and everyone else in between. We're all in the same race - all the random runners in Womble suits or Spiderman costumes or dressed as a pantomime horse ran their races in Gebremariam's footsteps, and - in theory - they could even have won. Anyone could. What other sport allows complete amateurs to compete against the best in the world? 

I don't race to win, obviously. But it's awfully nice to have the opportunity.

Happy running


P.S. blogging is weird - hello readers in the UK, USA, Germany, France, Holland, Luxembourg, Spain, Mexico, and South Korea! 

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