Almaz Ayana wins the 10,000m at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (Getty Images) © Copyright
Feature Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Record run in Rio just the start for Ayana

She didn’t even know about the record.

When Almaz Ayana surged to the front midway through Friday morning’s 10,000m final, she had just  one thing on her mind: gold.  

As she crossed the line in 29:17.45, having produced one of the most peerless displays in Olympic history, all she cared about was that she had beaten everybody who showed up on the day. “My plan was just to win,” she said. “I only saw the record after I finished.”

When she looked at the clock, a realisation soon set in: Ayana had not just beaten everyone who showed up that day; she had beaten everyone who has ever shown up.

“This is my 12th Olympics and that was the number one performance I’ve seen,” said her manager, Jos Hermens, who has overseen some of the greatest careers in distance running. “This beats the Hailes and the Kenenisas of this world. I was very confident she could win, but the time was incredible.”

It was hard to argue, for from the moment Ayana accelerated with 12 laps to run, it was clear from the gasps echoing around the Olympic Stadium that something special was afoot. Ayana dropped laps of 66, 67 and 68, gradually squeezing the life out of her competitors with her relentless gallop.

“I was comfortable with the pace,” she said afterwards. “I had prepared well for this.”

At the line, she had 15 seconds to spare over silver medallist Vivian Cheruiyot, who set a Kenyan record in second. Ayana’s teammate Tirunesh Dibaba crossed the line third in a huge personal best of 29:42.56, then joined her compatriot for a victory lap.

A while later, as Ayana spoke to the world’s media, one of the main architects of her performance sat towards the back of the room, dressed casually in a red hoodie and beaming a contented smile.

Anatomy of a champion

Yannis Pitsiladis, 48, is a professor of sport and exercise science at the University of Brighton in England and is, it’s fair to say, renowned for his provocative approach. His ideas are accepted by many, written off by some, but all agree this about Pitsiladis: he is an innovator.

In recent years he has been the chief figure behind the Sub2 Project, which is using a range of innovations to drive distance running standards beyond what many consider possible.

When Ayana’s race ended on Friday night, Pitsiladis’s had just begun. He sprang from his seat and went in search of the Ethiopian, moving fast with his recovery drinks in hand. The scientist recounts with glee the speed with which he reached his protégée, a crucial measurement which, he believes, will make all the difference in her attempt to win the 5000m next Friday night.

“Twenty minutes,” he says. “We rushed to give her the drinks. She’s the only one of the medal winners who got her drink within 20 minutes. Leading up to her next race, it’s all about keeping her recovered.”

Pitsiladis and his team are some of the key figures behind Ayana’s success in the past year. She is coached by her boyfriend, Soresa Fida – himself a 3:42 1500m runner – and she has received physio and medical support from Pitsiladis’s team in Ethiopia throughout the year.

“It’s about monitoring her condition, seeing how she’s feeling and seeing if there’s any sort of medical ailments,” says Pitsiladis. “Keeping her healthy, that is probably the hardest job.”

If anything, says Hermens, Ayana’s tendency is towards pushing too hard. She occasionally overcooks her system not so much on quantity, but with a barrage of quality.

Hermens first came into contact with Ayana late last summer, when she expressed an interest in changing her management. Since October, she has been under his management, and as a result benefitted from the input of Pitsiladis. However, the sports scientist admits that they are only scratching the surface of her potential.  

“I think the limit is very far away,” he says. “We’re only starting to use some of the innovations the project has, so imagine if you could adopt all the different sports science and sports medicine opportunities we use, for example, in the UK. Once we start doing those things, applying them to her and others, that’s going to get really fast.

“She trains incredibly hard, so at the moment the most important is the medical side. Historically the East Africans only have treatment when things go wrong, but she gets preventative treatment all the time, and that’s the most important innovation.”

Room for improvement

So if this is not the finished package, how much faster can she go in the future?

“I think that was only 90 percent,” says Pitsiladis. “There’s 30 seconds more there.”

Hermens is in agreement. “Passing all the athletes for the second half of the race, how much can she still gain?” he asks. “Her progression is astonishing.”

Much of that can be put down to Ayana’s lost years or, to put it better terms, the years she spent believing she was a steeplechaser. That was largely her focus up until 2013, when she began to concentrate more on the flat events, lowering her 5000m best to 14:25.84 in Paris.

“I’m not naturally gifted with speed so I concentrated on endurance,” said Ayana. “My plan was to move slowly from 5000m to 10,000m, but I didn’t want to move up too early.”

It seems she waited until just the right time. In the aftermath of her record run, Ayana was typically reserved, a quiet smile crossing her face instead of any delirious celebration.

“They are very quiet, laid back and relaxed people,” says Hermens, when asked about Ayana and her husband. “She’s a sweet, nice girl, which you see in her reactions.”

Given her nature, that’s an attitude she’s likely to maintain in the years to come, regardless of how fast she runs.

Which, if you listen to those close to her, will be exceptionally fast.

Cathal Dennehy for the IAAF