The rain and wind had stopped by 9 a.m. after a soggy three days, and, along with a flat course and five pacesetters flanking him, the conditions were ideal for Gebrselassie’s record run of 2 hours 4 minutes 26 seconds for the 26.2 miles.
It was 29 seconds faster than Paul Tergat’s previous world record on this same course in 2003. To the 34-year-old Gebrselassie, this world record, his 23rd in distances ranging from two miles to 5,000 meters to the marathon, this record was the most satisfying.
“Without question,” he said, grinning, “because it is the king of distance.”
Gebrselassie wore his laurel crown with regal familiarity Sunday, saluting the crowd at the finish line, hugging and thanking his pacemakers and high-fiving streams of runners as they finished an hour after he did.
Next came two important phone calls, a half-hour later at the finish line. The first was from his wife, Alem, who was crying back in Addis Ababa. The second was from his friend, Kenya’s Tergat. “I said to him, ‘Sorry, Paul, try next year,’” Gebrselassie said with a laugh.
Like his last race – the New York City half-marathon in August – Gebrselassie breezed to his victory with matter-of-fact perfection. He led from start to finish, helped by formidable marathoners like Rogers Rop who served as one of his pacemakers.
“I promised to run 2:03; that didn’t happen,” he said. “But it’s already a miracle now. I’m so happy just to think about it.”
With Abel Kirui of Kenya finishing second in 2:06:51, Gebrselassie’s only competition came from the clock.
As Gebrselassie repeated as champion (besting his 2:05:56 time of last year), his friend and neighbor, Gete Wami, defended her Berlin title by leading from start to finish and winning in 2:23:17. Irina Mikitenko of Germany finished far behind her in second, in 2:24:51.
This victory may have been eight minutes off world-record pace, but Wami had a different goal, establishing plenty of intrigue for a women’s duel in New York five weeks from now. Wami, 32, will attempt to win the New York City Marathon, hoping to capture the $500,000 prize for the first World Marathon Majors series that concludes on Nov. 4.
Wami moved into first place with 65 points, ahead of the two-time defending New York champion, Latvia’s Jelena Prokopcuka, who has 55 points. A victory in New York would give Wami 25 points; second place is worth 15 and third place is worth 10.
Wami acknowledged that she eased up the pace in the final seven miles. “Yes, I was thinking about New York,” she said. Running with a male pacemaker the entire distance had aided her victory, she said.
“Now I can prepare for New York,” she said.
In a way, both the men’s and women’s races in Berlin seemed almost like glorified time trials, with the runners taking advantage of the pacemakers to reach their goals. The slower New York City Marathon, with its bridges and hills, will not feature pacemakers for the first time this year as an experiment.
Still, Gebrselassie seems to run to his own metronome. Like Tergat four years ago, Gebrselassie ran the second half of the marathon faster than the first – this time in 61 minutes 57 seconds. He took off when all five pacemakers dropped off after 18.6 miles, sensing by about the 22-mile mark that the record was his.
He was not so confident Saturday, a blustery and wet day, when he had talked to his wife and told her he doubted he would get the record. But he slept well (his manager had to wake him at 6 a.m.), he put on shoes he usually uses for wet roads, and let the course unfold before him.
“When I start running, I was planning to run one day marathon,” he said, recalling that at age 15, he ran his first marathon in 2:48. “My dream has come true.”
What is left for him? He laughed off the joke of running a 100-kilometer race but turned serious as if seeing his next finish line already. “The Olympics,” he said.
Gebrselassie has two gold medals in the 10,000 meters, from 1996 and 2000. One mark still remains.