Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Greatest Distance Runner

Running heroes are everywhere. Go to any 5K or marathon in the U.S., and you'll find them. They’re the beginners who cross a finish line for the first time, the veterans whose commitment to the sport never wavers, season after season, year after year. They’re the phenoms and the underdogs who defy limitations and shatter expectations. Every day I’m inspired by these runners. They all reinforce how with a simple act--the motion of moving forward--we can shape each other, our sport, and our world.

However, only one runner, Haile Gebrsellasie, is both a hero AND the greatest distance runner who ever lived.

At 5 feet 3 inches tall and 112 pounds, Gebrselassie has set 26 world records including his stunning 2:03:59 world record at the Berlin Marathon. He has won a world championship or set a world record at every distance from 1500 meters to the marathon, and also has won two Olympic gold medals at 10,000 meters.

Yet that's not what makes Gebrselassie so compelling. It's not his ridiculous speed or endurance, but a personality infused with humility, self-assurance, an awareness of his place in the sport, and a sense of social responsibility. To me, Gebrselassie evokes hope, effort, and humility.

Gebrselassie has been called the Muhammad Ali of running. While he’s not quite the figure that Ali was/is, he generates a similar type of excitement by combining once-in-a-generation athletic performance with infectious charisma. Such people are so very rare. Much more common are the athletes who have the once-in-a-generation performance but just a regular personality. Ali and Geb are unique in that their athletic performance seems to be fed by the same source as their towering personalities, and that is an overflowing lust for life, which surely is the most attractive of all personality traits.

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