Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia, the fastest marathoner in history, will make his long-awaited American debut at the distance in November in the ING New York City Marathon race organizers announced today.
Gebrselassie, 37, joins defending champion Meb Keflezighi of the U.S. as runners announced for the elite men’s field.
Gebrselassie is widely regarded as being the greatest distance runner of all time. He has won nine marathons in his career, setting the world record two times, most recently in 2008 when he finished the real Berlin Marathon in two hours, three minutes, 59 seconds.
His resume is equally polished on the track, where he was at one time the world-record holder in the 5000m and 10,000m. He won the 10,000m at the Olympics in 1996 and 2000 and also won that event four times at the World Championships. His World Indoor Championship log includes three golds in the 3000m and one in the 1,500m.
“It’s like your sport’s biggest star finally arriving,” New York Road Runners president and CEO Mary Wittenberg said. “Arguably our sport’s greatest athlete is finally running a race on U.S. soil and it’s exciting. It was important for us to assure that he would get to the starting line at his peak. It wouldn’t have been right to put him there if he was unable to come in and try to win the race.”
Gebrselassie has long maintained an affinity for New York, particularly for the New York Road Runners organization, which sponsors youth running programs in Ethiopia, and Wittenberg, who said that the recruiting process to lure him to the Big Apple actually began 11 years ago, but only in earnest in 2005.
“In 1999, Haile was in New York to promote his movie Endurace,” Wittenberg recalled. “I had just started and remember sitting at a table in the library in our building with Alan Steinfeld and Haile. Just listening to him talk, you could see he was an athlete who was dialed into the sport. He knew our history and understood our legacy. I remember feeling confident that he would run New York because he gets it. Little did I know that wouldn’t happen for 11 years.”
Gebrselassie has always chosen to run elsewhere in the fall, particularly the flat course in Berlin where he has been provided an army of pace setters to chase record times and bonuses. The New York City Marathon does not feature pacing for elite runners and its undulating terrain is not conducive to such fast times.
“Haile has always put a lot of stock in records, and we have always put a lot of emphasis on winning titles,” Wittenberg said. “You have to know that Haile is going to do things the way he wanted them, and in his order.”
Gebrselassie was in New York this spring for the New York City Half-Marathon, a race he won in 2007 but did not finish this time around. Before the race he hinted at running the marathon in New York before retiring from competitive racing.
As recently as last month, Wittenberg continued her push to lure Gebrselassie to New York this fall, albeit more subtly. After the London Marathon, she flew to Ethiopia to attend the opening of Gebrselassie’s Haile Resort in Hawassa.
“I went to Ethiopia for the first time three years ago and I realized at that time that he needed to be really motive to come here and do well before committing to it,” Wittenberg said. “On this trip, I put it to him more jokingly. As I was leaving, in the car ride from Hawassa to Addis Ababa, he said, ‘Mary, don’t worry. I promise you something special.’”
This is the biggest athlete procurement for the ING New York City Marathon since 2004 when women’s world record holder Paula Radcliffe of Great Britain was brought in. She has run the race four times, winning in 2004, 2007 and 2008 and finishing fourth last fall.
According to Wittenberg, Geb has already beaten Radcliffe in at least one category.
“I think Haile has surpassed Paula as the runner who was the object of desire for the longest before running the marathon,” she quipped.