Renato Canova Q&A, Part II: Is A Sub-2:00 Marathon Possible? Who Wins a Potential Kipchoge-Bekele Showdown? & How U.S. Stars Centro, Rupp & Jager Compare to the Africans

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By Andy Arnold
December 12, 2016

Editor’s note: Andy Arnold spent six months in Kenya earlier this year performing anthropological research on Kenyan distance running (and writing the occasional post for During that time, he struck up a relationship with famed Italian coach Renato Canova, whose athletes include 2012 Olympic bronze medallist Thomas Longosiwa, 2014 world indoor champion Caleb Ndiku and 3:28 1500 runner Ronald Kwemoi. More than that, Canova, who moved to Kenya in 1998 and is currently based in Iten, has influenced coaches and athletes throughout Kenya and Ethiopia, including Gemedu Dedefo, who coached both Boston Marathon winners this year. Recently, when he was in Florida for a USATF conference for a one-on-one interview, which we are running this week in two parts. To read Andy’s dispatches from Kenya, click here.

If you missed Part I of my interview with Renato Canova, click here. In Part II, Canova shares his thoughts on the U.S.’s top stars, a potential Eliud KipchogeKenenisa Bekele marathon showdown in 2017 and whether a sub-2:00 marathon is realistic in the near future.

(Note: English is not Canova’s first language, so at times I’ve inserted or replaced a word in his responses to make them clearer while remaining true to his intention. Nothing has been added out of context.)

AA: Coach, you have worked with some of the greatest 1500-meter, 5,000-meter and 10,000-meter runners in the past and the present. How do you think the American male medallists compare to them? For instance, how does Evan Jager compare to Saif Saaeed Shaheen? Or Matthew Centrowitz to Ronald Kwemoi? Or Galen Rupp to Kenenisa Bekele? Can America’s stars compete with Africa’s very best? How does this Olympic team stack up against the runners of the past?

RC: Well, the runners of the past were stronger than the runners of today. When you compare Jager to Shaheen, I’m sorry, but there is no match. Absolutely, Jager and Shaheen are on two different planets. Exactly like Rupp and Bekele. Two different planets. What was the third one?

Comparing Matt Centrowitz to Ronald Kwemoi?

I think that Ronald is stronger and potentially better than Matt. But, out of all these names that you gave me, Centrowitz is the one that is more close in this type of competition to the best of the past.

So he could potentially make that breakthrough?

No, no, don’t speak about world records. He can become like Mo Farah, winning not only this Olympics but winning also World Championships and something else in the future, maybe Tokyo. But no world record.

What do you think about Galen Rupp at the marathon? How good do you think he can become?

He can become an athlete that runs 2:05, for sure, 100 percent. And in competition, without rabbits, where it’s important to have an ability to manage the competition, like the big championships, I believe he can take another medal. But, I do not believe that he can arrive at the level of Bekele or Kipchoge and also Wilson Kipsang.

Another hypothetical question: how good do you think Mo Farah can be at the marathon?

Not too much better (Farah ran 2:08:21 in his only career marathon in London in 2014). Maybe he can run, of course, between 2:05-2:06. But I don’t think he can become an absolute winner [in the marathon]. No, his way of running is very tough and strong, but it is not the best way of running a marathon. The best marathon runners have more [stride] frequency than him, and also, their form of running is not so circular. For example, compare his mechanics to Eliud Kipchoge.

What about the Kenyan-born Americans at the Olympics? Were there any hard feelings in Kenya towards these men representing America in Rio?

No, because for Kenya, this is not the first time. For Kenya, we started with Bernard Lagat, with Wilson Kipketer before that, and with all the group that has run for Qatar and Bahrain. So in this case, it’s another thing. But there is something else that I would like to explain better. These American athletes do not live in Kenya, or at least do not train in Kenya. They live and train in the United States. They have joined the Army, they have started jobs, and are becoming citizens of the US. They are American now. So it’s OK in the eyes of Kenyans. What they are not very happy about are Kenyans representing Bahrain, for example, because these are people living in Kenya, training in Kenya, and only going to run for Bahrain to gain an advantage. These are two different situations.

How do you think Paul Chelimo compares to some of Kenya’s top talent in the 5,000 meters?

I don’t think Paul Chelimo is as strong as Celeb Ndiku at his best, or maybe in the future, Ronald Kwemoi. But at the moment, 100 percent, he is better than all the other Kenyans in 5,000 meters. Sure. And he can run also under 13 minutes. Because the [Olympic] race was fast, and Chelimo was able to close very fast at the end. So I believe that he can run 12:55 or something like this.

You have famously worked with Kenenisa Bekele in the past. And like so many of us, you too thought that the world record holder was finished because of injury just a few years ago. Therefore, were you shocked by his 2:03 marathon in Berlin? And do you believe that Bekele’s health can continue into 2017?

I have no doubt that Bekele will continue, 100 percent. He looks forward to the Olympics in 2020, because he wants to win Olympics in marathon when he is 38. And although that age is old, the six years in the middle that he was off, practically, because of injuries, are years that can help him to run well later in the career. At least from a metabolic point of view, his body did not have too much consumption.

Like, technically speaking, Eliud is the perfect runner under the biomechanics standpoint for the marathon. This is a big advantage. Kipchoge already had this type of action when he was on the track. So while on the track, he was a little bit limited by this style, because it didn’t provide the same grip as Kenenisa, but for the roads and for the marathon, it’s perfection. Kenenisa has a different engine. We can’t compare Kenenisa with anybody else in the past, present, and probably in the future.

So if Kipchoge and Bekele duel each other in the marathon next year, who is your pick to win?

I know that in London next year, the idea is to try to go for 61 minutes the first half. I know also that both of them have not yet run a marathon all-out, one where the only idea was to run fast. For example, in London this past year with Kipchoge and [StanleyBiwott, if they didn’t have those five kilometers go slow when they were looking at one another [from 35k to 40k], Eliud could have broken the world record.

Also for Kenenisa in Berlin: he had a big advantage from Wilson Kipsang being there, but was also at a disadvantage because of his lack of experience. So when Wilson attacked those two times in the classic Kenyan way, pushing the pace well before the end, Bekele answered with his classic way. That is, to renounce the surge in speed, but not to change the pace. He also did this on the track, never did Kenenisa change, he would only push one time in the last 2 kilometers. And yet he ran very, very fast. So for Kenenisa, this 2:03 was an important step towards developing his full confidence for the marathon distance.

I believe that his shape in Berlin was only 85%, and he has the potential to increase to increase this shape moving forward. Eliud can maintain the same shape and can run 30 seconds faster [than this year in London], 100 percent. So I predict that if they both arrive at London next year, healthy and in shape, the world record will be lowered to around 2:02:30.

So you don’t want to make a pick?

I can’t tell you who can win, I don’t know. From what we have seen from both men, Bekele seems to be a little bit faster than Eliud if they arrive together in the last two kilometers. But it’s very likely that Eliud will not wait, and instead do the opposite of what he did this year in London against Stanley Biwott. Against Stanley, Eliud was sure that he would be faster at the end, but against Bekele, I predict he will try to run faster between 35-40 kilometers… [smiling] so we will see what will happen.

What are you thoughts on Yannis Pitsiladis and the Sub 2Hr Project? Are they doing anything that is groundbreaking, or is this simply a marketing ploy?

For Yannis, this is not about marketing. Yannis really believes that such a time is possible in the marathon. He has prepared many things to help athletes a sub-2:00 marathon. Many of those things are useful, many of those things are useless. I believe that a sub-2:00 marathon is possible, but not in the near future. For running under two hours, we need an athlete like the young Bekele, in his prime, running 26 minutes in 10,000 meters, and then quickly developing him for the marathon. Under this point of view, sub-2:00 is not so farfetched. To do it sooner, with the athletes we have now, we must run a race that is almost ridiculous.

This is what I imagine: a marathon run below sea level, like below the Dead Sea. We need also to conduct the race as a special kind of test. It must be organized solely for the purpose of running under 2:00. We have to remember that marathons now are run as competitions, normal competitions.

Just to clarify, you do believe that we will see a sub-2:00 marathon, but not anytime soon?

I will tell you this. If you take Eliud Kipchoge, or Kenenisa Bekele, and they become only a little bit stronger than they are right now, and you take them to run a marathon that is 50 meters below sea level, and for a pacesetter you have a car or motorbike, or something like this, that is normally allowed in current competitions, and you also allow them refreshment, not every five kilometers like the rules state but whenever they need it, I think that such a time is already possible.

BUT, this situation is not athletics. I guess it depends on what is the final goal for the project. If the final goal is only running under 2:00, I suppose it’s possible in two to three years. But if the goal is to run under 2:00 in a normal marathon, then no, it’s not possible.

More: Talk about this Q&A on our world famous messageboard. MB: Renato Canova shares his wisdom with

Previous: Part I: Renato Canova Q&A, Part I: Why the Kenyans Struggled in Rio, Learn The Name Of The 2020 Olympic 5000 Champ, and Why Isn’t China Better at Running?