When the 17th edition of the Dubai Marathon takes place this coming weekend, the world’s richest race will spark great memories for Jos Hermens, manager of Haile Gebrselassie, the legendary Ethiopian runner who claimed three historic back-to-back victories in the city from 2008-2010.
Hermens, a former middle-distance Dutch athlete who broke the world one-hour run record in 1976, coached arguably the most recognised runner for nearly two decades and still manages Gebrselassie as director and founder of Global Sports Communication.
Although Haile brought the curtain down on his illustrious competitive career in May 2015 after the Great Manchester Run, Hermens’ interest in the January 20 race on UAE soil remains as strong as ever.
He has 12 athletes, including multiple Olympic champion and event headliner Kenenisa Bekele, under his management ranks. The Dutchman’s eye for talent is unquestionable, illustrated by the fact he first spotted Gebrselassie’s back in 1991 when he was just an unknown 18-year-old.
“Dubai is always an extra special race that Haile and I always look forward too. He always enjoys coming back in an ambassadorial role now, but such is the competitor that he is, I think when he looks back on his record there, he’d have hoped to have done even better than he did,” the 67-year-old told Sport360 from his base in Holland.
Statistically, Dubai is the fourth-fastest course in the world when the average finishing time of the men’s top 10 is considered (2:04:40), while it’s third for the women (2:20:05). Berlin, London and Chicago are all wedged into the top four along with the Emirate.
Hermens knows a thing or two about putting on a race, as his communications company organises January’s Mumbai Marathon, road races in Amsterdam and Hamburg, and the New Delhi half marathon, among others.
He is predicting a speedy battle to the finish line again on Friday, as runners saunter down Jumeirah Beach Road, past both the Burj Al Arab and Madinat Jumeirah, and then towards the marathon finale just before Dubai Police Academy.
His client, Bekele, who stormed to victory in the Berlin Marathon last September crossing the finish line in 2:03:03, just six seconds short of Dennis Kimetto’s world record (2:02:57) – is undoubtedly one of the favourites.
Dubai certainly represents unfinished business for the 34-year-old after injury forced him to pull up during his debut back in 2015.
“Dubai always attracts such a competitive field because it’s quick and it’s the best way to start the season for many athletes.
“Our athletes are expecting a very good race again and I think the course record (Ethiopia’s Tesfaye Abera 2:04:24 in 2016) could go. Sub-2.04 should be possible and it will boil down to tactics on the day.
“When the pacemakers drop out, runners start to implement their plans and between the 32-40km mark, there will be a good fight out there. The final 10km will be a real dual and it’s about who can work it well.”
Away from the elite athletes, more than 30,000 runners are expected to compete across the full marathon distance, 10km event and 4km fun run race.
Held under the patronage of HH Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai, and supported by the Dubai Sports Council, the Dubai Marathon, which is in its 13th successive year with title sponsor Standard Chartered Bank, continues to expand.
“It’s been fantastic to see the growth of sport in the Middle East and the passion for running too,” said Hermens.
“We could actually do with more races, particularly 10kms and half-marathons in the Gulf, and really make the most of the cooler winter climate.
“It’s perfect weather, fast conditions and it allows athletes the chance to run and compete outside of the traditional European athletics circuit.”
From runner to coach to manager, few can attest to having had such a varied career in athletics
And pushed on what is his most memorable moment from working with leading lights of the sport on the track, there was only one answer.
In 2000, at the Sydney Olympics, Gebrselassie became the third man in history to successfully defend a 10,000m title (after Emil Zatopek and Lasse Viren).
It was a memorable race that came down to the wire. It was Haile vs Kenya’s Paul Tergat in one of the Games’ best climaxes, with the Ethiopian finishing just 0.009 seconds off his rival in an incredible finish that was actually closer than the men’s 100m final.
“There have been many, many highlights but the Sydney race stands out, with the dramatic ending, the emotion and the fact Haile was carrying an injury. It’s been a special journey and a pleasure to work with him.”
Gebrselassie has hailed Hermens, who was a 10,000m finalist at the 1976 Olympic Games, as a ‘father figure’ with the way he nurtured the running hero’s career.
And for the respected athletics manager, the Nijmegen-born man is very proud of what running’s most well-known face has achieved in his career after racing.
“Haile has set a big example and I’m very proud that he’s now Ethiopian Athletics Federation president. He’s having a big influence is his country, setting a great example to inspire young people and is doing very good things. He has many businesses and more than 2,000 people working for him.”
Away from the Dubai track, Hermens believes 2017 is a big year for athletics to rebuild its reputation following last year’s doping scandal involving Russian athletes and their blanket ban from the Rio 2016 Olympics.
IAAF president Sebastian Coe attended Global Sports Communication’s 30th anniversary in the Netherlands in April 2016 and its founder is confident the British running great can help the sport get back on track.
“I am in full support of Sebastian Coe – I think he is the best person to clean up our sport, accept the challenges and put more rules and regulations in place.
“Athletics needs more time with the Russian situation but I think we are getting back to where we need to be and the future is a lot brighter than it was this time last year.”
The three-time Olympic gold medalist stormed to victory in the Berlin Marathon in September crossing the finish line in 2h:03m:03s, just six seconds short of Dennis Kimetto’s world record (2h:02m:57s).
And after voicing his disappointment at missing out on the world record, Bekele is targeting Dubai for the next chapter in his marathon running career.
Ahead of the race in the UAE, here are 10 facts about one of the greatest distance runners of all time.
1. Kenesia was born in 1982 in Bejoki, the same town as the Dibaba sisters – considered the fastest family on the planet
2. He won his first senior world senior cross country title at the age of 19 in 2002
3. He was crowned IAAF Athlete of the Year in 2004 and 2005
4. He holds the world records in both 5,000 metres and 10,000 metres events
5. He won the double at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 10,000 metres title at Athens 2004
6. He’s the most successful runner in World Cross Country Championship history, with six long course (12km) and five short course (4km) titles
7. In 2014, he broke the course record in Paris Marathon on his debut over the distance (2:05:03)
8. In September, he ran the second fastest marathon of all time in Berlin (2:03:03)
9. His youngest brother, Tariku, was a bronze medalist over 10,000m at London 2012
10. His next love after athletics is football
In many countries, certain sports are king. In a vast majority it’s football, in the Philippines basketball rules, Pakistan and India are cricket crazy and in China table tennis dominates the agenda.
In South Africa it’s rugby, but Henri Schoeman fell in love with triathlon. His brother is a former Olympic swimmer, while his father and coach Joe is a keen runner and cyclist, so it’s not that difficult to see why.
What’s more gruelling is forging a path to greatness, but the 25-year-old is on it. He won triathlon bronze in Rio earlier this year and is plotting International Triathlon Federation World Series domination in 2017.
I’m really proud of that. It was the first Olympic triathlon medal for a South African so it was a great thing to achieve. As an athlete you always want to go into a race wanting to win. I was going for a medal but the top five was a realistic goal, so a medal was a bonus.
I wanted to use this Olympics as experience for the next. I’ll be in my prime in four years, so to win a medal in Rio was just a bonus and I’m really happy for that.
It’s been a great blessing to get that medal earlier than expected. I still want to build and I still have plans to win the World Series, I want to be world champion.
Definitely in four or eight years’ time I want to take that top step, that’s a goal of mine. I want to use the experience and confidence of Rio.
I’m going to work on my running, you end with the run so you want to have the fastest run. As a weak link in my repertoire it’s definitely something I’ve been working on and something I’m going to continue working on, to become one of the best runners in the sport. If I can do that the other achievements will come.
It’s really good. We had a strong performance at the Olympics with third and fourth and it shows we’re on the map. It’s great exposure for the country as we don’t really have a strong following here.
The Olympics gave us a lot of exposure so now lots more people are asking questions about it, so it’s great. Hopefully it will boom over the next few years and a lot more youngsters will get involved.
We’re good friends, especially when I first came onto the World Series. Richard was my room-mate a couple of times. We get along and it’s great having him around. He put triathlon on the map for South Africa first so it’s great for the country.
I want to start how I finished, with a medal. After the off-season you kind of never know where you are with your preparations, if you’re behind or building up, because it’s a long year. It’s hard to judge but it’s a key race for all athletes to see where they are.
Abu Dhabi is often the most competitive field and it’s usually a big test after the off-season.
I’ve been here the last two years. It’s a great experience with the weather. It showcases the best of the capital as an international destination. The attractions and facilities are awesome, it’s such a scenic area.
It’s never the best way to win a race. I felt gutted for Jonny that he had those issues at the end of the race, but a race is a race and you have to time your nutrition and energy level expenditure.
It’s all a part of racing and I guess he mistimed that. Maybe he was under pressure as he’s never had me up there running with him before, maybe he felt like he had to attack and it cost him his race. But it was a great feeling for me to win.
I’m the fourth person ever to win a World Series Grand Final, Javier Gomez, Alistair Brownlee and Mario Mola are the only other ones, so to be up there with those names is quite an achievement.
There’s a few. The big two are winning the Grand Final and third place in the Olympics. Also finishing fourth in the WTS rankings at the end of the year. Commonwealth Games silver medal in the team relay in 2014 and winning a World Cup in Tongyeong in 2014.
Either Hamburg or Stockholm. Stockholm, I really like the history with the buildings and the views. Hamburg it’s because of the spectators. There’s thousands of them around the course which is a really cool vibe when you race.
I enjoy video editing. I spend a lot of time with my girlfriend and friends, and I like walking on the beach. Simple things.
My brother Riaan was a swimmer. He went to the Olympics in Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012, competing in the 400m individual medley. It’s in the blood. He retired after London so now I’m carrying it on.
Growing up, my dad was always a sporty person, involved in lots of running and cycling. We were always involved with swimming so eventually I wanted to reach out with running and cycling and at 18 I thought maybe it could be a path for me.
Join a club and make it fun, learn with your friends. Get involved with races, challenge yourself and have fun with it.
Running. I’m very passionate about it. When I was a boy I used to run quite a bit, dad was running on the track. I think it’s in me.