Posted by: Joe English | September 29, 2008

Commentary: Haile blew the marathon world record out of the water

Coach Joe English

Coach Joe English

There are times when things happen in the world of sports that are so big, so amazing, that we just aren’t able to process them. We don’t have the perspective to understand just how incredible the events that we’ve witnessed really are in the context of history. When Haile Gebrselassie broke the marathon world record this weekend, we witnessed one of those moments.

Let me use a recent example to illustrate my point. When Michael Phelps set out to win his eight gold medals in the Beijing Olympics, people followed it with an expectation that it was even in the realm of possibility to do it. He said that was going to try it. His coaches let him enter all of those races. The media was talking about. So we watched the events unfold as a count-down toward this unbelievable feat of eight victories in one meet.

But if we were to step back for a second and look at what was really going in, we’d have to be just a little more awestruck by the whole thing. What he was attempting to do was to win eight world championship races, in different disciplines and distances, against the best swimmers in the world, at their peak performance, and to do all of it within about a one week period.

The Olympics are the biggest thing in swimming. The athletes he was competing against knew that they might have only one shot on the Olympic stage. They would leave nothing on the table. Many of them were specialists in one particular distance and they likely had trained for nothing but that one particular race, perhaps for their whole lives. All of their dreams may have come down to that one moment.

Yet, despite the fiercest of competition, the need to master multiple strokes and distances, and the lack of rest and recovery, Michael Phelps was not only able to win all of those races, but to win many of them in the fastest times ever recorded in history.


When Haile Gebrselassie set out to break the marathon world record a year ago, most of us marathon running commentators watched with some expectation that he would break that record. Haile has broken pretty much every world record that he’s ever attempted and he certainly has the discipline and ability to do what he was setting out to do. When he broke that record a year ago, he slashed 24 seconds off of the then current world record time.

That was a huge amount and I in no way want to take anything away from the awesome feat that we witnessed last year. But there was a part of me that felt that this was Haile’s way of breaking a record that was set by someone else. It was his way of stamping his unique mark on the marathon and he did it in a big way.

Fast forward a few months to January 2008 and Haile tries again in Dubai. This time we see that he was a least human enough to make some early pacing errors and he missed breaking the record again. He still ran faster than the previous best world mark, but he didn’t equal that record bashing that he’d done a few months before in Berlin. He showed that he was clearly the best in the world, but that he was now in a zone that was at least presenting him with challenges. This stuff was hard, even for the greatest runner on the planet.

So when he came back to Berlin this weekend to try to break the world record again, the consensus was probably that he would break the record again. He has been singularly focused on it for some time and he certainly has the discipline to keep hammering away it. But I think too that the consensus was that he might break the record this time by a second or a two — a small bettering of the mark — because it was now HIS mark that he was chasing.

That wasn’t what happened. He shredded HIS OWN world record by a staggering 27 seconds. He took another 1 second per mile out of the HIS OWN world record in just one year. This was just shocking.

Going back to my Michael Phelps example, it would be as if Michael Phelps was competing in an Olympic final, chasing his own world record. Remember that little green line they used on NBC to show you where the swimmers were in comparison to the world record? Imagine that the rest of the field — and that little green world record line — are all the way back at the wall just making the turn with 50 more meters to go and Michael is already touching the wall to finish the race. That would be absolutely shocking.

Haile destroyed the world record in Berlin and in so doing he smashed HIS world record and he did this just one year later.


Now we have to wonder if he plans to keep cutting the world record not by seconds but by leaps and bounds every year. If he does, we’re going to see that record fall a lot further toward that other barrier — the two hour barrier. Some people have argued in the past that we may never see someone break that two hour barrier in the marathon. Haile just proved all of those people wrong. It’s just a matter of time until we get there now.

Coach Joe English, Portland Oregon USA
Managing Editor, Running Advice and News



  1. […] RELATED: Commentary: Haile blew the marathon world record out of the water […]

  2. Great post but I believe Phelps won 8 gold medals at Beijing.

  3. Doooh! You’re absolutely correct.

    I guess I had my Lance Armstrong analogy hat on, but switched to Michael Phelps!

    Thanks and I’ve corrected the goof.


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