Boston, Ma. – The 17th New Balance Indoor Grand Prix goes off tomorrow evening in Boston’s Reggie Lewis Center, showcasing some of track and field’s top talent before a sold-out, often frenzied audience. Six world records and 28 national marks have been set in this meet, and more will be in jeopardy tomorrow night.
Among the athletes returning to The Reggie is Ethiopia’s Tirunesh Dibaba, aka “the Baby Face Destroyer”, who rose to world-class status at the tender age of 17, has eight world championship gold medals in her collection, and came into full flower with her double Olympic gold in Beijing 2008 in the 5000 & 10,000 meters. But since that career peak, it’s been a rough road for the 25 year-old Dibaba. After marrying Olympic 10,000-meter silver medalist Sileshi Sihine in October 2008, Tirunesh has been sidelined with a recurring bout of shin splints. In that time she’s missed two World Championships, Berlin `09 and Daegu `11, and now, as she enters the all-important Olympic year, she is taking her return to competition very slowly.
Tomorrow night in Boston, rather than butt heads with countrywoman and rival Meseret Defar, American 1500m World Champion Jenny Simpson, and 2009 World Championship 1500m bronze medalist Shannon Rowbury, herself returning from an injury-plagued 2011 campaign, Tirunesh will run the two-mile against a decidedly less glittering field.
“I have only had a few months training now,” said Tirunesh through translator Elias Kebede. “My goal is to run a very good time, and also be competitive.”
When I asked Shannon Rowbury why she decided to contest the tougher 3000m rather than the JV two-mile, since she, too, is coming back from a down year, she said, “the best way to know where you stand, especially early in the year, is to jump in against the best. That way you know exactly where you are and what you need to work on.”
While Tirunesh did get the better of fellow Ethiopian Gelete Burka at a 10K in Madrid January 4th in 31 minutes and 30 seconds, an athlete of her stature, freighted with the weight of expectations, lingers in a more defensive posture when revisiting the oval after a long absence.
“I am not in my very best condition,” she admitted, her face now more fully rounded as an adult than in her baby-face teen years. “And this is my first track race in over a year. I want to see how I feel, and not against top competition. The injury has been very frustrating. I have seen doctors in my own country, the U.S., Germany and England. They all diagnosed the same problem (shin splints), but had different approaches how to treat it. Dr. Wolfgang Muller in Germany was the one who finally fixed it.”
“With a combination of injections, and advise when to rest, what training to do, and how intense to train. I was very excited about racing the World Championships in Berlin 2009, and had done some hard training. But Dr. Muller said I should slow it down, advising me not to be so intense. It was upsetting not being able to run for myself and for my country.”
Her last track competition was way back in August of 2010, and with such a long gap since her last racing effort, Tirunesh was reluctant to put a percentage on her fitness level, only willing to say, “I am good”. And like all athletes who suffer chronic injury, she admits that part of concentration still holds along that shinbone, waiting for the nagging feel of any flare up to show up.
“I always listen to my leg,” she went on. “It is not gone silent fully yet, but is getting better.”
The NB Indoor GP meet record in the two-mile is 9:10.50 run by Meseret Defar in 2008. In Dibaba’s own six previous races at The Reggie, she has posted four wins, all at 5000m, the last in 2010 at 14:44.53. In 2005 and 2007 she set world indoor records over 5000m, the second 14:27.93 still ranks #3 all-time behind Defar’s 14:24.37 from Stockholm 2009.
Both Tirunesh and Meseret have thrilled Boston and international audiences for many, many years, their incendiary final lap kicks bringing fans to their feet in fist-pumping excitement. Though she is only 25 years of age, Tirunesh has been a world-class competitor for nearly a decade, and time and racing are harsh, unrelenting opponents which exact an increasingly heavy price for engagement. What was once so easy has now become a labor, though it remains a labor of love and commitment.
Thus, one of history’s all-time greats will lace up her spikes tomorrow night at one of her favorite venues. She will have thousands of flag-waving fans on hand to encourage her. They, and she, hope that when the time is at hand, the Baby-Face Destroyer will again be up to the assignment as she brings down the house.