Running for her life

BILL LANKHOF, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:51 AM ET

As she watched countryman Haile Gebrselassie set a world record in Berlin on a television in her Toronto hotel room yesterday, Mulu Seboka had a feeling this was going to be her day.

Shy and reticent with the media afterwards, she was an unassailable demon on a flat 42-kilometre course, turning the Toronto marathon into a victory parade. The Ethiopian destroyed the course record by more than four minutes, crossing the finish line more than a minute ahead of her closest competitor.

"I wasn't expecting the time to be that good but I was certain I would win," said the 22-year-old, giggling self-consciously after crossing the finish line in 2:29:05. "In Hamburg (Germany) at 30 kilometres I was on world record time and got cramps and had to slow down. In this race my health was 100% and nothing was going to stop me."

Especially not after watching Gebrselassie, who is to Ethiopia what Wayne Gretzky is to Canada. To Seboka, who comes from the small town of Sululta, he is a mentor and a guiding light.

"I left my village when I was about 17 all by myself to run in the big city," she said, following a dream of so many young Africans who fall in love with running. "He's a father figure to me and to see him break the record was an inspiration."

While many runners said the humidity, and particularly windy conditions on the Toronto Harbour spit, slowed them, Seboka seemed unbothered, breaking the course record of 2:33:16, set by last year's winner Ashja Gigi, also of Ethiopia, who placed third yesterday.

Seboka started running because she said she often felt "sick" when she was young and, her interpreter explained, many Africans believe running is a curative. The more kilometres she put on, the better she said she started to feel. She never bothered with short distances. In her first competitive race as a marathoner she finished fifth.

In Addis Abeba, the capital city, she found a club.

"It means 'New Flower", says her interpreter, referring to the city, but it would fit Seboka quite nicely, too. In a nation that spits out world-class runners like an auto assembly line, she allows that back in her village yesterday's victory will be a big thing.

"Big news," she said, beaming. "This is my personal best (beating a 2:30.04 in a win at Mumbai, India, earlier this year) and it might give me a chance to go to (the world championships). In Ethiopia? Well, maybe winning in Toronto isn't such big news, not big compared to Gebrselassie's world record jaunt. But, someday Seboka hopes her name might resonate like his. She has eyes set on the Olympics -- maybe even the utopian 2:15.25 women's world record held by the great Paula Radcliffe.

"My dream is to be a champion," she said. "Someday I hope, when God gives me permission, I'll reach that mark. That's my ambition. I'm young. I hope I can reach that point."

She is a wisp of a girl. Her height and weight aren't recorded on the IAAF website, which figures because there isn't much there to measure. Dress her up with a backpack and books and she wouldn't look out of place in an eighth-grade school room.

Except that she runs about 280 kilometres every week -- an incredible distance even for elite runners who extend themselves to the limit.

"That's a gift from God," she says of the ability to maintain such an intense training schedule. "I run about 40 kilometres every morning; then run in the afternoon for another hour," said Seboka, who beat Olena Shurkhno, of the Ukraine by 67 seconds yesterday. It's such a gruelling pace. Even Gebrselassie has asked her to slow down, she admits. "He comes to our training sometimes and he tells me," she says, hiding a grin behind her hand, "to not run so much."

Yesterday, the rest of the field found out what Gebrselassie already knew -- they couldn't stop her either.


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