Almaz Ayana blitzed to the third fastest time in history for the women’s 5000m at the Shanghai Diamond League on Sunday. Astonishingly, the Ethiopian only seriously switched to the distance two years ago. Here's how the former steeplechaser did it.
1. Steeple fears
Almaz Ayana was a gifted young steeplechaser. In 2010 she finished fifth at the 2010 World Junior Championships in Moncton, Canada, before later that year hinting at her future potential by slicing exactly two seconds from the world junior record mark with 9:22.51 in Brussels. She ran solidly in 2011, earning a Diamond League podium place in Birmingham, but in 2012 she lost her form over the barriers finishing down in 13th at the Shanghai Diamond League.
Later that year her husband, Soresa Fida, a 3:34 1500m runner who also competed in Moncton, asked her if she would like to try the 5000m.
“At first I refused to run, but after we discussed the change, I gave it a try. Steeplechase was my first love, but I sometimes feared the steeples. I injured myself at the barriers and I sometimes feared to jump and did not feel so comfortable.”
She ran a useful personal best of 14:57.97 in Brussels to place eighth. “The good performance in the 5000m gave me the confidence in my new event.”
Ayana training at home in Ethiopia
2. Coach switch
As a steeplechaser, Ayana had been training with the Ethiopian team under the national coach. Moving to the 5000m left her free to work with her husband as coach, which has brought many benefits.
“We made our own training plan and put much more intensity into our programme,” she says. “We can also now better adapt to my daily condition. My husband guides me every day in training and in my private life. He takes on important overview of my sporting life. He helps me eat healthily, relax and he motivates me.”
COME DINE WITH US: Dinner at home with Almaz and Soresa
3. Parisian nights
In 2013 Ayana was still competing in the steeplechase, as well as the 3000m and 5000m. It was at the 2013 Paris Diamond League event that she made a huge breakthrough in the 12-and-a-half lap event. In that race she hacked more than 25 seconds off her lifetime best to finish second, just behind world record holder and fellow countrywoman Tirunesh Dibaba. Ayana’s time of 14:25.84 elevated her to sixth on the all-time list.
“That is the race when I realised if I can stay close to Tirunesh, I can run with the best athletes [in the 5000m],” Ayana says.
Two days later she ran and won a steeplechase in a low-key meet in France. She has not run a steeplechase since. Later that year Ayana backed up her performance in Paris by winning 5000m bronze at the world championships in Moscow.
Ayana finished third in Moscow. Her role model, Tirunesh Dibaba, won gold.
4. Transformation complete
In 2014 and now 100 per cent committed to the 5000m she solidified her status as one of the world’s top 5000m athletes. She finished second at the Rome and Monaco Diamond League and made gains in championship competition, taking the Ethiopian, African and Continental Cup titles in what was a memorable year.
“Yes, I feel that I have arrived at the right event for myself,” she says. “I love the 5000m and I know I can fulfil my potential.”
NOT COLEMANBALLS: "Her stride length hasn't changed; her facial expression hasn't changed; but her personal best has."
5. Watch this space...
Running 14:14.32 in Shanghai on Sunday elevated Ayana to third on the all-time lists. Only Ethiopian distance running icons Tirunesh Dibaba (14:11.15) and Meseret Defar (14:12.88) lie ahead of her and within range. Both act as an inspiration to Ayana.
“They encourage me to run and help me strive to be the best,” she says.
Yet Ayana, who is still only 23, knows there is room for improvement: “I have to improve on my finishing, so I will work on my speed.”