“If I am to compete in it it is only if I feel I can win, otherwise there is not much point in me going.” - Hicham El Guerrouj
Over the last few weeks, I have tried to introduce you to some phenomenal human beings who were also great runners. This week, I thought I should introduce you to someone who is still alive and kicking and changing people’s lives as you sit and read this. Morocco has always been known for its runners, being one of the only countries that gives the Kenyan and Ethiopian runners some competition, and Guerrouj has been the one runner who has single handedly made a name for this third world country and put it on the world map. He is the ray of hope in the lives of the 30 million odd Moroccans, who know his split timings and each minute of his races by heart. He is the man that gives hope to the millions of Moroccans to fight and be the best they can be. He is the one who has led by example and shown that-”If I fight, this is what I can become”.
Guerrouj, although retired since 2006 - when he was 36 – from competitive running, is the current record holder for 1500m, mile and the outdoor 2000m, apart from being a double Olympic gold medalist. He is often referred to as the “King of the Mile” and is a contender for one of the greatest middle distance runners of all time. Guerrouj has humble origins, and to date, is a very humble man. He was one of seven at a modest home. His father owned a small restaurant. His earliest memories is of being told to run the mile to the bakery to get bread. He was instructed to run as fast as he could as he only had seven to eight minutes before the bread got cold. And he would, with his brothers and sisters clapping and cheering him on as though he had finished a race as he entered the house. Guerrouj was originally a goal keeper with the local football team. He used to return home muddy and dirty on a daily basis. This obviously irked his mother, who had her hands full with six other children to look after. It was hard for her to keep his clothes clean. The next instruction he received was simple – no more playing football. And so it was. With so much energy and no permission to play football, Guerrouj started running. At the age of 14, he entered a cross country race. He finished second. A year later, he won the National cross country championship in his age group. His talent was recognised, he left school and went on to the National Training centre to train to be a elite runner much against his parents wishes. It was at this point that he promised himself that he did not have the luxury to lose. He had made a decision against everyone’s wishes and that he would prove to everyone that his was the right decision.
And he trained doubly hard to ensure that he proved his decision was the right one. Guerrouj lived the austere life of a pro athlete, training two times a day come rain, storm, sun or hail. In a year, he would live four months at a higher altitude and train there. This was to improve his oxygen carrying capacity. Back at sea level, he would continue to train two times a day. He trained with a small team of three close comrades. During a regular training session, he would blaze the track and burn out his three raining buddies and still be freakishly strong at the end. Even though a sprinter, his training schedule surprised a lot of his competitors because Guerrouj trained like a marathoner, clocking in an average of 13-15 miles an hour practically daily. Other than the regular long runs, his training also included tempo runs, hill training and interval training And he stuck to this grueling schedule for all but three weeks of the year. Even at the peak of his career, when he was making two million USD a year, while owning a villa as well as a spacious apartment, Guerrouj would continue to live in his one room apartment at the training center and drive his small Honda SUV.
One of his most famous and defining moments was the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. He had been training hard for his first outing at the Olympics. He was a hot contender for the gold at this event and was eager to make his mark. In the final lap, as he was moving in to take the lead, Guerrouj met with an accident; he fell and ended up finishing in the last place. This crushed him. The King of Morocco called him 10 minutes after the race to let him know that even though he finished last, as far as his country was concerned, he has won the race and was a hero for his countrymen. Even his sponsor, Nike went ahead and paid out the USD 50,000.00 bonus which had been promised to him if he won the gold at this event. This gesture made Guerrouj all the more resolute and a month later at the Grand Prix final in Milan, he became the first runner to defeat the current record holder Morceli over 1500m in four years. Following this victory, he went onto become the only runner to have won four consecutive world titles – 1997, 1999, 2001 and 2003. In the 2000 Olympics at Sydney, he got a silver in the 1500m. At the 2004 Olympics at Athens, Guerrouj finally managed to win the Gold in both the 1500m as well as the 5000m event. The only other runner who has done this before is the Flying Finn, Paavo Nurmi.
Guerrouj’s speed is astounding with a 3:26 minute 1500m, 3:43minute mile and 4:44 minute 2000m. He announced his retirement in 2006 after fulfilling his sporting ambitions. Guerrouj today is a UNICEF ambassador of peace, a member of the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federation) – a highly decorated athlete and a true humanitarian. A great man, with amazing mental grit, dedication, resolve and the ability to focus on a dream to achieve it and make it happen. A man, who has always been respected, loved and adored by not just his fans but also his competitors. A man who is truly human – who has helped his country men dream and helped them in every way he can. And most of all, a humble man who never lost himself in success and has been in touch with his roots right from day one. He knew how blessed he was in terms of talent and opportunity, and is grateful for these gifts everyday.