Ten days ago ‘The Emperor’, Haile Gebrselassie, the best male marathon runner of our generation, honoured a 10-year old promise to Brendan Foster, the founder of the Bupa Great North Run, by coming to compete. In near perfect conditions – we all like a bit of drizzle, really – he stormed around the half marathon in 59 minutes. He is 37 years old.
This is by no means the first time that he has achieved this kind of record. In September 2008, at the age of 35, he won the Berlin Marathon with a world record time of 2:03:59, breaking his own world record by 27 seconds. All of which puts his 61 Ethiopian National Records ranging from 800 metres to the marathon and the 27 World Records he has broken and numerous Olympics and World Championship titles in a new perspective. Only Evander Holyfield, former Heavyweight Champion of the World, who is still in the ring at the age of 47, has a better claim to disproving that age is always against you.
But then the science, and the psychology state that marathon or ultra-marathon running is better suited to a more mature athlete. It takes experience to deal with two hours and more on the road, and our bodies have not stopped properly growing until we are in our mid-20s. So maybe those of us over 30 are over the hill, but what we have more of than we did 10 years previously is stamina and a sense of sheer bloody-mindedness that is something that only comes with time.
On Friday last week 400 runners lined up in Athens for the 2,500 year anniversary of the run that Pheidippides made to Sparta that is the origins of the Marathon. The 152-mile non-stop race is the toughest ultra-distance race in the world, and really does separate the men from the boys. The average age of the runners is 44. The oldest finisher was 67. Although the age limit is 18, there are very few under 30 who take this race on.
Why is this? I like to think that the marathon distance both teaches and requires real patience, the kind that demands full attention and a state of mind that has gotten used to the long haul. I vividly remember sprinting off the start line of my first marathon full of adolescent over-excitement. When I took part in the Spartathlon in 2009 I was the last to cross the finish line, having barely broken into a run.
So, the message that Gebrselassie leaves us with as he turns his attention to the New York Marathon (I assume) is pretty clear – marathon running is made for middle-age, and if you want a race that you might even win as you approach 40, 50, even 60, then book a ticket for Athens. They are waiting for you.