Ethiopian runner Almaz Ayana stuns crowd with 10,000-meter world record

Almaz Ayana set a new world record in the 10,000-meter race on Friday, finishing in 29 minutes, 17.45 seconds. Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters

A few minutes before the start of Friday morning's 10,000-meter race, Almaz Ayana, a 24-year-old distance runner from Ethiopia, kneeled on the track and quickly made a cross over her chest. When the prerecorded sound of a gunshot rang through Rio's Olympic Stadium, the mass of 37 runners took off and swiftly separated into two groups; Ayana and the defending champion from Ethiopia, Tirunesh Dibaba, ran in the first pack.

For a dozen or so laps, they loped along in an orderly line, as though they were queuing up for coffee. Then, at the 5,200-meter mark, the front-runners prepared to lap some of the runners who lagged behind -- and Ayana broke free.

Like a getaway car weaving through traffic, she swerved around the laggards, leaving the rest of the leaders in blind, hopeless pursuit. As the competition wore on, Ayana pulled farther and farther ahead, eventually setting a new world record in the 10,000-meter race: 29 minutes, 17.45 seconds.

It was just her second time ever competing in the event.

The first occurred just over a month ago, when the newcomer took on Dibaba at the Ethiopian Olympic trials in Hengelo, Netherlands. The results shocked the distance community -- not just because it was Ayana's first official race, but also because it was the first time that Dibaba, one of the most lauded distance runners in history, lost a 10,000-meter race. Before that day, the 31-year-old three-time gold medalist had competed in the event 11 times and won them all. Then came Ayana.

Dibaba, who was returning from a hiatus after having a son, is royalty in the racing world. Her cousin, Derartu Tulu, was the first black African woman to win an Olympic gold medal. Dibaba's older sister, Ejegayehu, took silver in Athens. Their younger sister, Genzebe, is tapped to win the 1,500-meter race next week. According to a profile in Vogue, the sisters are celebrities in Ethiopia, where they "travel by car to avoid being mobbed." Tirunesh's wedding to fellow distance runner Sileshi Sihine was shown on national television, and the couple is opening a luxury hotel this fall.

Tirunesh Dibaba lives in the capital city of Addis Ababa, but she grew up in Bekoji, a rural mountain community of about 16,000 people that's produced an extraordinary number of Olympians. The town's runners have won 10 gold medals in track and field, more than entire countries. Ayana was raised in the same area, admiring the legendary sisters from afar. "When I was very young, green and wet, I was thinking of the Dibaba family," she said after the race.

Dibaba, who called Ayana her "lovely young sister," said she was pleased with the results. But she admitted that the pace gave her problems. "In my experience, it was very difficult," she said.

"When I was very young, green and wet, I was thinking of the Dibaba family." Almaz Ayana

Unlike sprints, which have a less complicated mandate (run fast!), the 10,000-meter race requires a great deal of strategy; a moderate pace benefits runners like Dibaba, who is known for her furious kick at the end. The event poses an excruciating test of both endurance and speed. Competitors must run 25 laps quickly, but carefully, so that they don't melt into exhaustion -- which is why Ayana's fluid, relentless gait, especially after her surge at the halfway point, was so stunning.

Afterward, one journalist mused aloud: "I was like ... does she think this is a 5K?"

Almost immediately, the results invited skepticism. Ayana hadn't just beaten Wang Junxia's record, she had annihilated it, topping the 1993 time by 15 seconds. It was a shocking outcome, especially given that Junxia later admitted to participating in China's doping program. After the race, Swedish runner Sarah Lahti, who finished 12th, told the newspaper Expressen that she didn't believe Ayana was "100 percent." She added: "I cannot say that she is not clean, but there is a little doubt."

When asked about the allegations, Ayana smiled. "My doping is my training," she said. "My doping is Jesus."

For Ayana, the race began with a prayer and ended with a call to worship. At the 8,000-meter mark, she was so far in front of the pack, the stadium began to stir; applause followed behind her, rippling through the crowd like a sonic wave. When she hit the final stretch, the old world-record time flashed on a screen near the medal stand, reminding the audience of what was at stake. Everyone rose and cheered.

Afterward, once she had crossed the finish line and learned what she had accomplished, Ayana waited patiently for Dibaba, who would finish in third. The young Ethiopian had easily outraced the legend and the rest of the group.

And history, too.