Jun 2, 1999 at 12:00 am

In the beginning, time stands still. Days melt into a single, repetitive unit. Get up, splash water on your face, grab your books and start running. Six miles to school, six miles back: over the hilltops, into the valley, through golden fields of nothing.

You’re late. The teacher remarks on it, casually, but you’re not fooled by the tone of his voice. His hand grips the ruler. Sharp, burning marks in the palm of your hand. You say nothing. You sit down and swallow your tears. At the end of the day you run back wrapped in your own small happiness, like in a blanket.

When you run, you forget. It’s like the world’s giving you a break. Faster – over the hilltops, into the valley, through fields of nothing. Faster – like you ran the day she collapsed on her way back from the river. You called her name. You touched her face. You ran back to the house looking for your father, but the house was empty and the wind chased you away.

A few days later you buried her. She was a hard woman. She left 10 children behind. You covered your face and cried. Your father didn’t.

Haile Gebrselassie, what are you going to do? They want you to work on the farm but God has other plans for you. You grab the only pair of shoes in the house and set off, determined to make a name for yourself, to break the stubborn pattern of time, to force the hand of destiny. Give it up, father says. Be a lawyer. Be somebody.

Where are you coming from, Haile? Ethiopia. The end of the world where time stands still and God looks the other way.

And then, one day, it happens. In 1996, at the Atlanta Olympics, you, the son of a village farmer, win the gold medal. And we, who had it so good all these years with our air-conditioned cars and hair salons and garden parties, are humbled by the smile on your face as you run, wrapped in your colossal happiness, like in a distant memory of fields of gold.

Send comments to [email protected].