Ghirmay Ghebreslassie won the NYC Marathon in 2:07:51, but what received almost as much attention as his dominance of the competition was his extreme youth. The Eritrean turns 21 today, which makes him the youngest man to ever win the NYC Marathon. Considering most top marathoners peak between 29 and 33, he is possibly the youngest man to win any major marathon.
Not only did Ghebreslassie skip the standard years-long progression up to the marathon distance, he’s run a lot of them in a short time—this was his seventh career marathon, and the third he’s run just this year.
Such an ambitious schedule brought Ghebreslassie in for some rather pointed advice from one of the sport’s elder statesman. In the post-race press conference, 39-year-old third-place finisher Abdi Abdirahman was asked by a reporter how to sustain a long career, and his reply seemed directed right at Ghebreslassie: “Just, like, don’t try to make as much money as you can for one year. That’s short and clear because, like, you can run three marathons and make a lot of money in one year, but your career will be over within three years. If you want to have a long career, longevity, enjoy life, do two or one marathon a year and just enjoy the moment and just make sure you’re doing the right training.”
That strategy has worked for Abdirahman, who has been at the top of U.S. distance running, and earning a nice living from it, for 17 years.
The competing school of thought is to strike while the iron is hot. If making money is the goal, why spend years earning $1,000 here, $1,000 there running shorter distances on the track, when the real payday is running marathons? Ghebreslassie took home $100,000 for his win in NYC and $40,000 for his fourth place finish in April’s London Marathon, and could still pick up spending money during marathon training by running 10Ks and half-marathons as tune-ups. He got little, if anything, from his fourth place finish at the Olympics in Rio, which may be why he ran three marathons this year.
Top level marathoning, involving 130-mile weeks of training and 26 spleen-bursting 4:45-ish miles on the day, is hard on the body. There’s no guarantee you won’t get injured even running just one marathon per year—might as well hit it fast and hard while you can, right?
This seems to have been Ghebreslassie’s plan as the preternaturally talented teen moved up quickly from his first international appearance in a 10,000 meter track race at age 16 to the marathon at age 18. When he came out of nowhere to win the 2015 World Championship Marathon at age 19—again, the youngest man to do so—the event was listed as his fourth marathon.
There’s no proven physiologic reason to wait until one’s late 20s to start running marathons. In the U.S., most runners in their late teens and early 20s are competing in the NCAA, where the longest race is 10,000 meters. Even those runners who skip college and go directly from secondary school to the professional ranks use the 18-to-22 years to take advantage of leg speed before its expiration date—unless you are Justin Gatlin, speed fades by your mid-to-late 20s, while endurance, well, endures.
Not only is speed a limited-time commodity, the long aerobic runs and volume of mileage required to prepare for a marathon strengthen endurance systems but don’t do much for 5K and 10K speed. It’s either-or; at the elite level, you’re either training for a marathon or for shorter races. Anecdotally, when young runners who’ve run a marathon or two try to go back to shorter and more intense racing, they find it hard to recover their youthful speed.
Runners in line to be considered the GOAT—Haile Gebrselassie, Kenenisa Bekele, Mo Farah—all spent their early 20s tearing up the track and/or cross country before moving up to the marathon, and advise youngsters to do the same, and to resist the lure of big marathon paydays.
Though he wasn’t chasing money, some attribute marathoner Ryan Hall’s retirement from the sport at 33 to the fact that he moved up to the marathon distance at the tender age of 25. Hall saw his ten-year career differently, telling Competitor:
“I kind of look at how I trained in my running career as pretty similar to a lot of the camps I observed when I was in Kenya, where you get a lot of young runners who have been running for a lot of years just training super hard and running a lot of high volume, a lot of high intensity and that does kind of burn your candle a little quicker than if you take a more mellow approach to training and gradually build up and all that. But that’s not who I am, you know? I was always into exploring the extremes for myself and I’m actually kind of amazed I got as many years as I did out of my body. And I’m thankful for those years because I feel like I pushed really, really hard for a long time, so I’m actually kind of grateful to my body for what it did do for me.”
Maybe Ghebreslassie will be different—who knows? Maybe he can keep going at this pace. Maybe it will turn out that the mythic two-hour marathon is the purvey of a man in his early 20s. Maybe he can make enough even in three or four years to live comfortably in Eritrea. Maybe he’s getting some sound financial advice along with career advice. One thing’s for sure—the experiment is turning out pretty well for him so far.