Netsanet Gudeta in Valencia (© Jiro Mochizuki)
Netsanet Gudeta gave a portrayal of someone who had been supremely confident of getting the gold medal at the post-race press conference for the IAAF/Trinidad Alfonso World Half Marathon Championships Valencia 2018 but sometimes a peek behind the curtains of the puppet show is required, followed by a quiet word with the man who pulls the strings.
It’s probably not exactly how Gudeta’s Italian manager Gianni Demadonna would really like to be described but having guided her career since she first came to international attention when winning the Great Ethiopian Run in 2013, he was able to provide another perspective on the Ethiopian’s stunning performance in Valencia on Saturday.
It was an outing that ended with her not only winning her first global title but also improving the women’s-only race half marathon world record by 14 seconds to 1:06:11.
What he revealed was that the championships were not even part of her plans until barely a month ago, despite her finishing sixth and fourth at the last two editions and standing on the podium having led Ethiopian to team silver medals on both occasions, and certainly the world record was not on anybody’s radar.
“In truth, I am very surprised, and I think everyone in the Ethiopian federation would have been surprised. It was a great performance and she was in good shape, a personal best was our target, but the world record not something we were thinking about even a few days ago.”
A team member via the back door
“Netsanet really came to attention when she won the world cross country championships bronze medal in 2015 and then made a promising marathon debut in Paris last April (in 2:29:15). She has made steady progress over the last few years.
“She then set her half marathon personal best of 67:26 in Delhi and that was a very good run because Delhi was a very difficult race for many reasons, not least the pollution.
“So she then went to the Dubai Marathon in January and we had big hopes for that race and she didn’t actually take part in the Ethiopian trials for these (the world half marathon) championships.
“In principal, the Ethiopian federation was going to choose the team from those trials (in Sendafa on 28 January, which were held just two days after the Dubai Marathon so making it impossible for Gudeta to run in both races).
“However, it wasn’t her day in Dubai and she dropped out late in the race. When she returned to Ethiopia, the federation asked her to come to the national training camp in Addis Ababa – she usually trains on her own outside of the Ethiopian capital with her husband and national standard runner Gelelcha Girma - and train with the women who had qualified for these championships via the trails as they were a very young team,” explained Demadonna.
In fact, the four other members of the Ethiopian women’s squad in Valencia were aged 18, 19, 20 and 21, and could not boast of a single appearance at a major championship between them, so the 27-year-old Gudeta was very much the grand dame of the quintet that arrived Spain.
“The Ethiopian federation decided that despite Netsanet not having competed in the trials they wanted someone with experience to train with the others and act as a mentor and guide.
“However, still there was no expectation that Netsanet was in the type of form that could challenge for the individual gold medal. The focus of attention during the training camp was on the team gold.
“Netsanet’s own form returned quickly after the Dubai disappointment and she was running well in training. We thought she might run a personal best, maybe low 67s or just get into the 66s, but not 66:11.
“In fact, I think the coaches’ assessment in the camp was that a couple of other members of the team were actually in better shape than Netsanet, that’s how much of a surprise it was when she won gold and got a world record.”
“Nevertheless, the Ethiopian federation’s planning in terms of bringing in Netsanet for her experience was absolutely correct as they did also take the team gold medals,” he added.
Following Gudeta home, 19-year-old Zeinaba Yimer finished fifth in and 18-year-old Meseret Belete sixth. Both women sliced more than two minutes off their bests with 1:08:07and 1:08:09 respective.
There were personal bests as well for the non-scoring Bekelech Gudeta and Zinash Mekonnen in eighth and 11th, who both finished inside 69 minutes.
Into the unknown
The question is, what now for Gudeta after her Valencia victory?
Demadonna admitted he wasn’t immediately sure although her future seems to lie on the roads rather than the track although he confirmed they didn’t have a spring marathon planned and would be looking at shorter distances until the autumn.
She has missed out on global championships on the track in the last three years, finishing sixth in the Ethiopian 10,000m championships in 2015, fourth over the same distance at the 2016 Olympic trials and then had just one outing on the track last year when she finished third in the national championships 5000m but wasn’t picked for London.
However, regardless of where and when Gudeta next races, after Valencia she will hear the announcer proclaim her as “world champion and world record holder” as she is introduced to the crowd.
Phil Minshull for the IAAF