He is considered the greatest runner of this generation, and no, his name is not Usain Bolt. It’s a mistake that’s easy to forgive though; next to Bolt’s electric rock ‘n’ roll persona, the quiet, reclusive Kenenisa Bekele is often invisible.

But the Ethiopian distance runner, 33, is used to living in the shadow of more flamboyant champions. He likes it that way. He erased his more famous countryman Haile Gebrselassie’s track records long ago, yet Gebrselassie remains the “Emperor"; his face, lit in a wide smile, the most immediately recognizable symbol of Africa’s dominance in distance running.

Bekele too grew up idolizing Gebrselassie. Then, in 2003, Bekele beat Gebrselassie at the World Championships in Paris in the 10,000m. Then he beat his idol at the 2004 Athens Olympics for his first Olympic gold. An aura of invincibility surrounded Bekele as he claimed medal after medal, record after record. He now holds the world record for both the 10,000m and the 5,000m (and no competitor has come close to his timings yet), won both those events at the 2008 Olympics and holds more world cross-country championship titles than any athlete in history.

Bekele’s dream was to follow the path set by Gebrselassie and transition to the marathon, perhaps set the world record there too. But a series of injuries in 2010 forced him to lie low. He struggled to overcome recurring problems in his calf, competing and training only sporadically for the next three years. At the 2012 Olympics, he finished fourth in the 10,000m, behind his brother Tariku.

It was only the next year that Bekele could start full training again, and this time, he turned his focus entirely on the marathon. It was to be his mission: to be the Olympic marathon champion and break the world record. It began well. In April last year, he ran his first 42km, the Paris Marathon, and set the course record, as well as notching up the sixth fastest marathon debut ever. But his old injuries came back to haunt him—at the 2015 Dubai Marathon, Bekele retired from the race after 30km, and then withdrew from the London Marathon.

Yet, the ambition remains. When we met Bekele—a slight man, inconspicuous and shy, dressed in jeans and a grey running tee, looking lost in the lobby of a hotel in New Delhi—he spoke of his desire to run the marathon at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and his life growing up in the “cradle of running". Edited excerpts:

You had said earlier this year that you would decide whether you want to run the marathon or the 10,000m at Rio. Have you decided?

For now, it’s not yet decided. I know it’s been a long time that I haven’t been able to decide. My plan is to first try and qualify for both, and maybe then I will decide. I feel that I achieved everything in the 10,000m and the 5,000m. The marathon is the one still left, so yes, that’s what my mind is on, and I am working very hard to see if I can make a comeback and run the marathon. But everything depends on how my treatment will go. I had an Achilles tendon and a calf muscle injury. I am still visiting doctors, still in treatment. Sometimes the recovery is very difficult.

It has been a long road to recovery for you.

Yes, very long. Since 2010. My injuries started affecting everything. I could not run, could not train. I could not race. I thought it was finally going away last year, but even before the Paris marathon I was not completely fit, and after the marathon the injury got worse. All this started when I was still racing on the track, so I can’t even complain that I got injured trying to switch to marathons.

How different is it to run the marathon after more than a decade of dominating the track?

Everything is completely different. The training is different—volume-wise, speed-wise. When I raced on the track, I was never afraid, never nervous. In marathons, sometimes I am afraid.

Also, you need to learn how to run differently, how to pick the pace, even the way the body reacts. When you run a road race, you have to keep your legs very low. If you have a high action, a high heel, then you are hammering the hard road, you are basically jumping on the road; if you do that for 42km, your body will break down. In track, high heel, big jumping run, no problem. So the method of running, the tactics are different when you compare short distances on a track and long distances on the road.

How do you keep your focus when you are on long runs during training?

Sometimes I find marathon training boring. Every day you keep running, every week increase the distance. To keep my focus through that long distance every week was a major challenge for me.

I don’t listen to music when I’m training. It’s better to concentrate on your technique, on your pace, on your surroundings; you don’t want a car or cycle to hit you either. I love running on natural routes. I enjoy the landscape, forest, beautiful nature. Enjoying nature while running, there’s nothing better than that

How did you start running?

I started running just randomly. My schoolteacher had advised me not to run. But I loved playing football and handball, anything that involved a ball. One day, when I was playing football, one of my high-school teachers saw me and told me maybe I should start some athletics training. That if I take it step by step, maybe I will run as well as anybody. And I started thinking, is it true? What this guy is telling me? Is this the right advice, or is he joking with me? So for a long time I did not do anything with it. I went and asked family, friends; they said, what’s the harm in trying? Just start training, and let’s see how it goes. I was around 15 then; it was quite a late start for me, but within two years I was winning medals.

You come from a country where running is the biggest sport by far and you have great runners to look up to. How much did that help?

Haile was everyone’s role model. And even before Haile there was Abebe Bikila. He won at the Rome Olympics (1960)—no shoes on his feet, and double Olympic champion. We learnt this history in school, from family, from friends, we read about them, talked about them. About Derartu Tulu winning gold in the 1992 Olympics. It’s a gift. It gives you the motivation, the focus at a very important time, when you are trying to find yourself.

Your village, Bekoji, is very special. It has around 17,000 people, but 16 Olympic medals, 10 of them golds. There’s you and your brother. Tulu is from there, the Dibaba sisters (Tirunesh, the 5,000m world record holder and three-time Olympic champion, Olympic medallist Ejegayehu, and Genzebe, who set indoor world records in the 1,500m, 3,000m, and 5,000m)…scientists have found that people from the area of the Rift Valley have special genes that help in distance running, and that the altitude is perfect for building endurance…

I think genes can make a big difference. For certain sports— that need all out speed, or all out endurance—the genes make a bigger difference. But with training, maybe, you can change anything, you can adapt yourself to get a great level.

We are born at high altitude, we grow up there, we run every day, and already the body starts adapting, starts learning. Also, our lifestyle is very challenging. To survive for us is hard work, to get enough money to eat properly, to study…farming there is very hard and physical, and your body, your mind, adapts to this. My family was a standard farming family; they farmed only to survive, there was no profit from it.

To be a good runner, do you need to grow up around farming? No. You can find a good runner anywhere. It’s about your interest. Your motivation. You need a very good expert coach, a helping family and the right training conditions. You do need to go and do high-altitude training. If you can put this combination anywhere, I think you can make a good athlete.

Of all your wins, do you have a favourite?

Sometimes you win races you cannot believe you can win. At the Berlin World Championships (2009), I won a double. Both races were very, very tight, both were very fast. I had to run the 10,000m at a very fast pace. It was very hard. Then, five days later, I was running the 5,000m. In between, I had run the heats.

I didn’t feel so much, but tiredness, yes. Lots of tiredness, and then the tiredness makes you feel not very confident, especially when you see the competition, and you think, what do I have to do to win this? There is recovery training of course, but maybe I have a special gene and my body recovers better and faster.

I regret every race I have lost. The 2004 Olympics, I especially regret that. At that time, my first Olympics, I did not have the experience and I lost my 5,000m by less than a second. Now, I have the experience that I will not lose a race like that. Then there was the cross-country race I ran in 2005, a few weeks after I lost my fiancée (Bekele’s fiancée Alem Techale died of an apparent heart attack when she was 18, while out on a training run with him). I was struggling, I was grieving, through the whole race I was grieving.

Who can break your records? Do you see Mo Farah (the 5,000m and 10,000m gold medal winner at the 2012 Olympics) doing it?

Mo Farah can’t break my records at the moment. It’s hard for him, simply because if you look at his best timings, it is still very far from my record. At the moment, there is nobody who can break my record; but of course, we never know, a newcomer, a new generation will come. And if athletics keeps getting better, like it is, of course someone will break my record.

Talking of the way athletics is changing, do you think there will be a runner who can do a marathon in under 2 hours?

That is a difficult question, you know. Who knows? I don’t want to say yes, I don’t want to say no. But for that to happen, you need a very special person, a special group of people who will make more advances in training and methods. New technologies, new things will have to be tried. But I can’t say no, that can’t be done.

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