Chicago, Ill. — His name tops a glittering list of champions who have gone on to top another list he hopes to join this Sunday in Chicago. Eritrea’s Zersenay Tadese is inarguably the greatest half-marathoner in the world with five IAAF World Championship titles at the distance and the two fastest times in history — 58:23 in Lisbon 2010, and 58:33 in The Hague in 2007. But the 31 year-old is now seeking to slash his Z-first initial onto the all-time marathon list at the 2013 Bank of America Chicago Marathon.
Though he has dominated the half-marathon since 2006, Tadese has never popped the marathon performance that his credentials predict. To date his best is a modest 2:10:41 from London 2012. Chicago will be his third attempt at the full distance. He debuted at the 2010 London Marathon, where he posted a time of 2:12:03 good for seventh place.
“I have changed my training,” admitted Tadese. “I have done more long runs. So I hope to run faster on Sunday.”
Besides his five world half-marathon titles, Tadese has shown his form on the track where the three-time Olympian has earned a bronze medal in the 10,000 meters at the 2004 Athens Olympics (he was fifth in Beijing 2008; 6th in London 2012). He also won silver at the 2009 IAAF World Championships 10,000 in Berlin, and struck gold at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Mombasa, Kenya in 2007. Each and every one of those results points toward not just marathon success, but marathon dominance.
Men like Zersenay who take lesser medals on the track, but win at cross country and the half-marathon seem born marathoners. They may not have the speed to close over the final 400 meters on the track, but they possess a bottomless fount of strength from which to draw. Englishman Steve Jones, the two-time Chicago Marathon champion (1984-`85) and former marathon world record holder was one such runner. Never fast enough to win at the shorter track distances, the second Jonesy moved to 26.2 miles, he was a killer. So, too, should Tadese be. But he hasn’t done it in either of his first two marathons.
With ideal weather predicted, and a robust field of contenders joining in the hunt, the 5’3”, 120 pound native of Adi Bana, Eritrea is hoping to finally see his potential in the marathon come to full fruition. But one glaring difference crops up when comparing Tadese to the other East African contenders in the field from neighboring Ethiopia and Kenya.
While men like Moses Mosop, Emmanuel Mutai, Micah Kogo, Dennis Kimetto and Ayele Abshero train in large groups, especially for their speed sessions and long runs, Zersenay Tadese has only two men with whom he spins out his web of fitness in Asmara, the capital city of Eritrea.
“One guy will run his first marathon in Amsterdam,” explained Tadese. “He was number 13 in the (2012) world half-marathon championships (Mulue Andom).”
While a fine runner (13:40, 28:03, 61:28 PRs), Andom is no Tadese, meaning that on every training run, speed session and long run Zersenay is The Man. It’s a little like this (I think). I recall playing ping-pong in the family basement with my older sister. Every time she would miss hit a shot, because the ball hit her thumb, she‘d declare, “That doesn’t count, it hit my thumb.”
“But you’re the one who made the ball hit your thumb,” I’d complain. “You can’t take that over. It’s just a lost point.”
“In that case, I’m quitting.”
“Ok, Ok, it doesn’t count. Play to point over.”
I needed the practice, you see, before playing my neighborhood friends. But with my sister as my training partner I’d lose when I played Fran or Bob or Danny (though I still beat Steve, cause he wasn’t that good). It’s only when I convinced Pop to play with me, who showed me absolutely no mercy, that I quickly became ping-pong champion of the League of Friends. You get the point.
Well, the top Kenyan athletes train with large groups of similarly credentialed athletes, especially on their speed and long run days. This allows guys to share the workload, physically and psychologically, which is like sharpening their edge on a better whet stone than someone training on his own. This is the realization Ryan Hall came to during his month-long sojourn in Kenya in preparation for his November 3rd New York City Marathon date.
For his part, Tadese points to improved long runs as the key to his success in the marathon. He has upped his long run from 36K (22.3 miles) to 41K (25.4 miles). He has won his last two competitions, though they were some months back. He took first in the Prague Half-Marathon in April in 60:10, then won the Gifu Seiryu Half-Marathon in Japan in May.
Zersenay’s achievements on the world athletics stage have made him one of his country’s most identifiable sportsmen. He is a popular public figure in his home country; 2500 guests attended his wedding to Merhawit Solomon, which was broadcast live on Eritrean television. Together they have a 4 1/2 year-old daughter, Semira. It seems only a matter of time before Zersenay Tadese joins former half-marathon world record holders Paul Tergat, Haile Gebrselassie and Sammy Wanjiru on the list of all-time great marathoners. The question is whether Sunday is that time.