The ability to overcome challenges appears to be part of Almaz Ayana’s DNA.
By working hard to climb to the summit of global distance running, despite hailing from a modest rural background, to triumphing in the 10,000m on her season’s debut at the IAAF World Championships London 2017, no challenge appears beyond the capability of the world and Olympic 10,000m champion.
Yet the latest task to return to full fitness after undergoing surgery on both knees is, arguably, Ayana’s greatest obstacle to date as she builds up for what she hope will be a successful defence of her world 10,000m title in Doha on 28 September.
Born the seventh youngest of nine siblings in western Ethiopia, Ayana first engaged in running when registering for a school race at about the age of 13 or 14.
Having no clue as to how she would perform, she recalled finishing “second or third” over 1500m but faced a significant obstacle to her progress.
“When I started racing there was a girl at my school who always finished number one,” explains the quietly-spoken and unfailingly polite Ayana. “I was afraid of that girl but somebody told me that I have to beat her. I listened to that person, beat that girl and later joined a project (a training group for beginners) in my local area.”
Encouraged by how hard work could reap rewards, she moved to Addis Ababa and joined the Defence Force Club. A coach there advised her to try the steeplechase and she quickly advanced to the international level. In 2010 she placed fifth in the steeplechase at the IAAF World U20 Championships in Moncton, Canada and later that year shattered the world U20 record with a stunning 9:22.51 for third in Brussels.
Yet since she was a young girl, inspired by listening to the feats of Ethiopian distance running legend Tirunesh Dibaba on the radio, Ayana dreamed of starring in another event.
“I always wanted to be a 5000m athlete,” she says.
Marrying her husband, 2011 African 1500m bronze medallist Soresa Fida, in 2011 provided the impetus for a switch in approach.
Ayana left the Defence Force Club and in 2012 Fida took over the coaching reins, and so began the work to remodel the long-striding Ethiopian from a steeplechaser to a 5000m and 10,000m athlete.
“I previously did just what the coach told me but now (under Fida’s guidance) I have a lot more input into training and I really listen to my body,” explains Ayana, who is deeply devoted Orthodox Christian.
The 2013 campaign hinted at her hugely exciting potential. Now training twice a day for six days a week and combining energy-sapping long runs with punishing speed session, Ayana earned 5000m bronze behind her compatriot Meseret Defar at the IAAF World Championships in Moscow.
African and Continental Cup 5000m victories followed in 2014 but it was the 2015 campaign when Ayana emerged as a world-class star. In Shanghai she ran a blistering 14:14.32 performance to climb to third on the world all-times list – behind Dibaba and Defar – with the kind of fearless front-running performance which has become her signature.
Then at the World Championships in Beijing later that year, a blistering final 3000m of 8:19 enabled Ayana to quell the considerable threat of compatriot Genzebe Dibaba to bank 5000m gold inside the crucible of the Bird’s Nest Stadium.
In 2016 the Ethiopian then entered another realm by obliterating the 23-year-old world 10,000m record by more than 14 seconds with a jaw-dropping time of 29:17.45 to claim the Olympic title in Rio.
“The preparation before Rio went really well,” explains Fida, who cites Ayana’s long rhythmic stride coupled with her appetite for hard work as what singles her out from her opponents.
“Almaz was running so quickly in training, I couldn’t follow her.”
Ongoing shin splints issues threatened to derail her entire 2017 campaign. Yet despite not having one single pre-event competition prior to the World Championships in London, she defied logic to strike 10,000m gold by a 46-second winning margin, thanks to a staggering second half split of 14:24.95.
Understandably fatigued from her herculean efforts in the 10,000m, she had to settle for 5000m silver behind Kenyan Hellen Obiri before she ended her season in style with victory on her half marathon debut in New Delhi in 1:07:12.
However, on her return from India she felt a pain in both knees and abandoned plans to compete in the 15km Seven Hills race in the Netherlands. The pain just would not subside and weeks became months as she sought a resolution to the increasingly frustrating problem.
“I visited many doctors,” explains Ayana. “It was very demoralising and I was very down.”
Under the knife
It was finally discovered she required career-saving surgery on both knees. Utilising the renowned skills of world-class knee specialist surgeon Dr Roland Biedert, Ayana underwent the surgery in Bern, Switzerland in July last year.
“The doctor did not give a recovery percentage but he said you will come back,” explains Ayana, who was reassured by his words. “I actually felt happy after the operation because I knew at least the problem had been fixed.”
Spending two months post-surgery recuperating in Switzerland, where she carried out 30 minutes of exercises a day, the road to recovery has been slow and it has required a significant amount of patience.
She finally discarded the crutches three months after surgery and worked on a fastidious exercise rehabilitation programme with her Dutch physiotherapist, Sjors Schipaanboord.
Initially walking for 10 minutes, she finally returned to running late last year with gentle five-minute jogs on the treadmill.
“I was afraid to run because I was scared of how my knees would respond,” she said. “I didn’t know if I would feel pain.”
Over time, the pain has diminished and she is back to training six days a week. At the Prefontaine Classic in Stanford earlier this month she made a tentative return to her first competition in 19 months, finishing 18th in the 3000m in 8:57.16 – almost 35 seconds down on her PB for the distance – but crucially survived unscathed.
“I was not very happy with the result but the pain is getting less and less in the knee,” explains Ayana, who puts her current fitness level at about 30 per cent.
Unsure as to where her next competition will be, the Ethiopian superstar still has time to round into better shape for the defence of her world 10,000m title in Doha. And, as she showed in London two years ago, Ayana has proved the master of the seemingly impossible.
Aged just 27, only a fool would dismiss Ayana’s chances. Crucially, the Ethiopian herself has the belief that she can prosper again in future.
“I know I can come back,” she says. “I will try to continue to strengthen both knees. I know anything can be achieved with patience.”
Steve Landells for the IAAF