By Sabrina Yohannes. After his first marathon victory at the Beijing world championships in 2015, Eritrea’s Ghirmay Ghebreslassie mused on the fact that his family had objected to his taking up running. “My parents wanted me to be a great student but I wanted to be a great athlete,” he quipped at the time. “Today’s victory will be a great surprise to them.”
“They had special ambitions for me in school, to go to the university,” Ghebreslassie told RunBlogRun in an interview after he won the 2016 TCS New York City Marathon. “I was one of the prize winners in the academics. When I started running, they were always my opposition, especially my father. He never accepted me being a runner.”
Ghebreslassie’s parents, Ghebreslassie Embaye and Nighisti Habte, are farmers from the Kisadeka area close to the southern border of Eritrea. They were in the nation’s capital of Asmara when he returned from the 2015 worlds.
“When I got back from Beijing, my father especially, was not able to control his emotions,” said Ghebreslassie.
“Family, villagers, training partners, all welcomed me in the airport,” he said, going on to describe the welcome ceremony that included the nation’s president and crowds in the streets celebrating the first Eritrean world champion in the marathon, after which Ghebreslassie talked to his father.
“He was crying,” said Ghebreslassie, who asked his father about it.
“Even if someone told me that I’m going to die tomorrow, it’s enough for me to see from my son such special things,” the father told his son. “You did enough, for yourself and your country. I am proud of you.”
“I came back, and there was so much in Asmara, and everything was like what happened after Beijing,” Ghebreslassie told RunBlogRun in a later interview, adding that his father was again moved. “He was happy and he told me that he is very proud of the result I got from New York.”
Since that 42K victory, in addition to the April London marathon, Ghebreslassie has run two shorter races in Europe, starting with a 62:43 finish at the Egmond half marathon in the Netherlands in January, behind Ethiopian Dawit Wolde (62:41) and Dutchman Abdi Nageeye. “From beginning to [near the] finish, I led,” said Ghebreslassie. “The last 100m, I was third. Between number one, two and three, it was only one second. Number [three] and number two had the same time.”
At the Virgin Money London marathon – where he’d been fourth in a 2:07:46 personal best a year earlier – Ghebreslassie was in good shape but made a tactical error in the fast first half, he said, ultimately finishing sixth in 2:09:57. He won the Bern Grand Prix 10 miler in Switzerland in 49:25 ahead of Kenyan Sylvester Kipchirchir and Eritrean Simon Tesfay on May 13, after which a setback struck.
“I had an injury for a few months starting from May,” Ghebreslassie said. “It’s why I was not at the world championships in London … I didn’t get the chance to defend my title.”
“It was a runner’s knee injury,” he said of the ailment that cost him the August 6 worlds competition and the entire summer, and for which he was treated and did strength training in the gym.
“I didn’t do too much long runs,” he said of the post-injury marathon build-up.
“Now everything is going well,” he said, speaking just over a fortnight before the 2017 NYC marathon on November 5. “I am doing well. I hope to be champion in New York.”
“It won’t be easy,” he added. “But in order to keep my title, I’m going to do all my best.”
He faces challenges from former world record-holder and 2014 New York champion Wilson Kipsang of Kenya, former Boston winners Lemi Berhanu Hayle and Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia, and 2015 NYC runner-up Geoffrey Kamworor, who trains in the same group in Kenya as Olympic champion Eliud Kipchoge.
The Asmara resident Ghebreslassie is a member of the international NN Running Team that includes Kamworor and Kipchoge, the latter of whom took part in Nike’s Breaking2 attempt to run the marathon distance in under two hours in May, albeit under non-world-record-eligible settings. A rotating team of pacemakers behind a pace car led Kipchoge, Desisa and Eritrea’s half marathon world-record holder Zersenay Tadese on a loop course in Monza, Italy on May 6.
Ahead of the attempt, Ghebreslassie was asked in Eritrea to comment on its prospects. “Under two hours, even though at the moment it’s not easy for them to do, Kipchoge, for sure, he can run 2:00:30,” Ghebreslassie said he predicted.
Kipchoge clocked 2:00:25. His official personal best on a regular course is 2:03:05. Tadese’s is 2:10:41 and he ran 2:06:51 in Monza, while Desisa, whose best is 2:04:45 and who had experienced injury in the Monza build-up, finished in 2:14:45.
“I was wrong by only five seconds,” said Ghebreslassie of his prediction. He noted the improvement registered by his former Olympic and world track medalist compatriot Tadese, whose historic accomplishments over half the marathon distance on the road he lauded.
“He’s the record-holder now and he’s the five-time IAAF champion,” said Ghebreslassie. “It’s a special history for Eritrea what he did.”
Along with the former world cross country champion Tadese, Ghebreslassie lists the Berlin champion Kipchoge, and world record-breakers and repeat world and Olympic gold medalists Haile Gebrselassie and Kenenisa Bekele of Ethiopia as runners he admires. “I appreciate all of them and respect them,” Ghebreslassie said.
With his 2015 and 2016 races, Ghebreslassie joined the ranks of world and major marathon winners. All of his decorated running role models have repeated some of their major victories, and Ghebreslassie will be hoping on Sunday to take his second NYC crown and join them in that respect.