He may be the world and New York champion, but Ghirmay Ghebreslassie’s goals for the 2017 Virgin Money London Marathon are all about times not triumph as he aims to run the quickest race of his life on Sunday.
Ghebrselassie became the youngest world marathon gold medallist in history when he won the title in Beijing two years ago at the age of 19, and he cemented his burgeoning reputation in the Big Apple last November when he dismissed a top-class field to become the first Eritrean to win the prestigious race.
But his personal best of 2:07:46 is at least two minutes slower than many of his east African rivals in this year’s elite men’s field, a fact that the rising star of world marathon running aims to put right in Sunday’s race.
“I’m not at all satisfied with my PB if you compare it with others in the race,” he said. “On Sunday I’m determined to break 2:07 and will try my best to run sub-2:06 or even sub-2:05.”
Ghebreslassie ran his best time when finishing fourth in London last year and went on to place fourth again at the Olympic Games in Rio, both races won by Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge.
But with a field containing six men who have broken 2:06, topped by Kenenisa Bekele, who ran 2:03:03 to become the second fastest marathon man in history last September, Ghebreslassie knows he will have to run quicker than he ever has before to make the podium this time.
“The most important thing for me is a fast time,” he said. “If I do that I will be in a good position. To win here you have to run a fast time so if I do that I could win.”
Although he’s only 21, Ghebreslassie already has seven marathons behind him, and is now experienced enough to know that he could be a genuine contender on Sunday.
“When I was preparing for the World Championships I wasn’t very experienced and the training was hard,” he said. “Often I didn’t feel good after training – the long runs and speed training made me weak.
“But before New York, and now before coming to London, I feel very different. I’m more experienced now and feel ready to run my best time.
“This is the race to do it,” he added. “I want to come back to London this summer to defend my title at the World Championships, but no one thinks about times in a championship race, just medals. So this is the race to think about getting a good time.”
Ghebreslassie ran three marathons last year, but has completed only one half marathon since winning the New York title last November, a deliberate strategy to designed to arrive in London in the shape of his life.
“I have been preparing for this since New York,” he explained. “I made sure I didn’t have many races over the last five or six months because I needed to recover properly and be at my best.”
Ghebreslassie may not be targeting victory on Sunday but a top-three place and elevation to the ranks of the world’s very quickest 26.2-milers would be another major step on what has already been a remarkable journey since he took up running as a schoolboy in Kisad’Eka village, some 115km south of the Eritrean capital, Asmara.
Ghebreslassie was inspired to run by Eritrea’s world half marathon record holder, Zersenay Tadese, and Ghirmay’s near-namesake, Haile Gebrselassie, who both developed their talent as youngsters by running to school.
“I lived in the country so if I needed to go to school I had to go by foot,” he explained. “At first I walked with all the other kids, but when I heard about Tadese and Haile, and even Kenenisa, I started running too.
“There was also one special guy behind me,” he added. “A teacher who saw me running at school and encouraged me to take up running seriously.
“I owe everything I have achieved so far to him.”