Rarely had a reigning world champion been such an underdog. Rarely had an athlete so accomplished, so dangerous, been so overlooked in the pre-race predictions.
But Muktar Edris has a habit of defying expectations.
When the 25-year-old Ethiopian launched his kick to grab gold in the men’s 5000m, many at the IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019 turned to each other, as they had done in London two years earlier, in surprise: Where had he come from?
Edris’s second successive title proved a much bigger shock than his first, even if two years ago he had to defeat Mo Farah on his home turf to take gold, the Briton who had won the previous three world 5000m titles.
The reason for Edris being so severely doubted was simple: injuries.
After London he developed chronic pain and inflammation in his achilles tendon, and while it wasn’t the kind that completely side-lined him, it limited his training substantially. Edris could only do longer, slower running for much of the past two years, his achilles flaring up anytime he let rip on the track with shorter reps.
“One kilometre and under, no,” he said. “Because (practising the) kick is painful. I could just do slow running, lap after lap. The injury is still sore today.”
It was the reason he failed to fire in 2018 and for much of 2019, Edris’s two outings in the IAAF Diamond League resulting in an 11th-place finish in Oslo (over 30000m) and an 18th-place finish in Lausanne (over 5000m). In May he dropped out of the 10,000m at the Ethiopian Championships, which meant the only reason he was able to compete in Doha was via his wild card entry as defending champion.
But he had shown flickers of his old self in the summer, clocking a 7:39.52 3000m to finish second in Budapest – good, but not the kind of great form needed to win a world title.
Few had expected him to repeat his 2017 feat, with teammates Selemon Barega and Telahun Haile Bekele tearing it up on the circuit, the Ingebrigtsen brothers primed to utilise their fearsome kicks if the pace was slow, and accomplished 5000m performers like Mohammed Ahmed of Canada and Paul Chelimo of USA never to be discounted.
Edris himself didn’t expect it to win. “I had such problems with injury,” he said. “My hope was to be in the medals.”
Over the past year he had also developed an abdominal problem, which flared up after his semi-final in Doha. He was grateful to have the weekend off to restore his health. He was treated by his team physio with a tecar machine, a device which transfers an electromagnetic frequency through the muscle.
His strategy in the final was simple: he would run primarily for his fellow Ethiopians.
“I would help for my group because I had an injury,” he said.
Under the guidance of coach Hussen Shibo, Edris trains alongside Barega and Bekele at their base in Sendafa, just outside Addis Ababa. He grew up in Addis, a rare exception among East African champions who tend to typically come from rural backgrounds.
No one in Edris’s family had been a runner before him, and he figures it’s about seven or eight years since he first took up the sport in a competitive capacity. As a youngster, Haile Gebrselassie had been his role model.
Edris has been married for four years and has a two-year-old daughter, while his training typically consists of covering between 20 and 25 kilometres per day. “Three times (a week) for hard training, other days steady,” he says.
The majority of his running is done in the forests around Sendafa and in the weeks leading up to the World Championships Doha he found his form slowly returning.
Going into the final, the Ethiopian trio feared the speed of the Ingebrigtsens, so they sat down and hatched a plan with their coach. “The Norwegian guys in very slow races are very fast on the last lap, same with (Paul) Chelimo, so me, Muktar and Telahun decided to push,” said Barega. “We had a group target: to have an Ethiopian gold medallist.”
Edris said the plan was to alternate laps until 3000m, then after that whoever felt strongest could push the pace at the front. “And on the last lap,” he said, “we kick together.”
What unfolded was one of the most captivating 5000m races of all time. With a horde of Ethiopian fans causing a racket at the start of the back straight, chanting in unison in support of their heroes, Edris swept to the front, clocking a 61-second first lap.
Barega soon pitched in up front and towed the field through 1000m in 2:39 and when they hit 2000m in 5:14, the Ingebrigtsens were already in trouble. But the Norwegian duo re-attached themselves to the main pack shortly after halfway following a slight relenting in pace.
Approaching the bell, Canada’s Ahmed seized command and at that point, Edris seemed to be hanging on for dear life in fifth. Down the back straight Jakob Ingebrigtsen surged to the front, with Edris tracking his teammate Barega as he went in pursuit.
With 120 metres to go, it appeared to be the duel for gold that many were expecting, with Barega drawing alongside Ingebrigtsen, but then along came Edris with that fearsome kick – the one part of his armour he had been unable to train properly.
It didn’t appear to matter, though, as the defending champion unleashed a 27.29-second final 200m to take gold in 12:58.85, his last four laps covered in a blazing 3:59.63.
Edris paid tribute to the fans on the back straight after his victory, the many Ethiopians who had roared him to gold. “I didn’t get the chance to talk to them because I had to go to doping control, but I’m very proud,” he said.
His chief target next year, of course, is the Tokyo Olympics, but having only got to Doha on a wildcard, Edris will not be looking too far ahead. “My big goal is to try for the Olympic trials, then to go to the Olympics and to try to avoid injuries,” he said.
But while in Doha, such thoughts could remain benched for the time being. A day after his final, as he walked to the far end of the stadium to receive his medal alongside Barega, Edris was able to reflect on the magnitude of his achievement. From champion to also-ran, then all the way back to the top step of the podium.
“The World Championships is very difficult,” he said. “We did a great job.”
Cathal Dennehy for the IAAF