2017 Dubai Marathon Men’s Preview: Can One of These Men Take Down Kenenisa Bekele?

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By LetsRun.com
January 17, 2017

In recent years, the Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon has functioned as a proving ground for young Ethiopian marathoners. With 16 Ethiopians in the men’s elite field, it will still serve that purpose in 2017, but the main attraction in Friday’s race (Thursday night in the U.S.) is a veteran: 34-year-old Kenenisa Bekele, the 5,000- and 10,000-meter world record holder who will look to add the marathon WR to his resume after falling six seconds short in Berlin last year.

Bekele is clearly the favorite, but with a total of six men with PRs under 2:06 and 11 under 2:07, he’ll have plenty of competition. That makes sense as first place is rewarded with the biggest prize in marathoning – $200,000. 2014 champ Tsegaye Mekonnen (2:04:32 pb), Barcelona/Ottawa champ Dino Sefir (2:04:50 pb), Olympic 10k bronze medallist Tamirat Tola and debutant Berhanu Legese (59:20 HM pb) are among the men who will try to take down Bekele on Friday.

We discuss Bekele’s preparation and world record chances in a separate article: Kenenisa Bekele vs. the World Record: Will Kenenisa Bekele Become The First Man In History To Hold The 5,000, 10,000 and Marathon World Records at the Same Time on Friday? Below, we preview the rest of the men’s elite field.

What: 2017 Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon

When: Friday, January 20, 6:30 a.m. UAE Standard Time (9:30 p.m. ET, Thursday, January 19)

Where: Dubai, United Arab Emirates

How to watch: Live on Eversport.TV beginning at 9:20 p.m. ET on Thursday, January 19

Prize money

1st$200,000
2nd$80,000
3rd$40,000
4th$20,000
5th$13,000
6th$12,000
7th$11,500
8th$11,000
9th$10,500
10th$10,000

There is a $250,000 bonus for a world record.

2017 men’s elite field*

NameCountryPBComment
Kenenisa BekeleEthiopia2:03:03Legend fell 6 secs short of WR in Berlin
Tsegaye MekonnenEthiopia2:04:321st in ’14, 3rd in ’16
Dino SefirEthiopia2:04:502nd in ’12; won Barcelona + Ottawa in ’16
Sisay LemmaEthiopia2:05:164th Dubai, 7th London, 4th Berlin in ’16
Mule WasihunEthiopia2:05:445th last year
Abera KumaEthiopia2:05:56Struggled in ’16: 36th in London, 10th in Amsterdam
Tamirat TolaEthiopia2:06:17Olympic 10k bronze medallist was 4th in ’14
Solomon DeksisaEthiopia2:06:22Coming off PR in Rotterdam last April
Raji AssefaEthiopia2:06:24Hasn’t raced since dropping out of Dubai last year
Chele DechasaEthiopia2:06:33Hasn’t broken 2:08 since 2010
Limenih GetachewEthiopia2:06:494th in Rotterdam last year
Azmeraw BekeleEthiopia2:07:12Hasn’t raced any marathons — and just once, period — since 2014
Herpasa NegasaEthiopia2:10:174th in Mumbai last year
Abdelhadi El HashimiBelgium2:10:35Set PR last year at age 41
Tariku BekeleEthiopiaN/A2012 Olympic 10k medallist DNF’d his first 2 marathons
Birhanu LegeseEthiopiadebut59:20 half marathoner won prestigious RAK Half last year
Daniel RotichUgandadebut60:59 HM pb
Bira SebokaEthiopiadebut61:12 HM pb
Birhan NebebewEthiopiadebut27:14 10k pb
Endeshaw NegesseEthiopia2:04:52Pacer
Amos KiprutoKenyaN/APacer
Edwin Kiprop KiptooKenyaN/APacer

*entries subject to change

The Case Against Bekele

Abera's win last year was one of many recent out-of-nowhere victories in Dubai

Abera’s win last year was one of many recent out-of-nowhere victories in Dubai

Over the past five years in Dubai, a definitive pattern has emerged. Take a look at the winners since 2012 (this section partially lifted from last year’s preview).

2012: 21-year-old Ethiopian Ayele Abshero runs a course-record 2:04:23 in his debut to lead four men under 2:05. Abshero has yet to win another marathon since.
2013: 23-year-old Ethiopian Lelisa Desisa runs 2:04:45 in his debut, as a record five men break 2:05 in Dubai. Desisa has gone on to win Boston twice and finish 2nd at both Worlds and in NY.
2014: 18-year-old Ethiopian Tsegaye Mekonnen sets a world junior record of 2:04:32 in winning Dubai in his debut. He’d finish 5th in London later in the year and third in Dubai in 2016.
2015: 20-year-old Ethiopian Hayle Lemi Berhanu wins in 2:05:28. Unlike the previous three champs, Berhanu was a veritable marathon veteran with a grand total of one marathon prior to his Dubai victory. Berhanu won Boston in 2016.
2016: 23-year-old Ethiopian Tesfaye Abera wins in 2:04:24. Dubai was his fourth career marathon, but his best before Dubai was 2:09:46. He went on to win Hamburg in April but dropped out of the Olympic marathon in Rio.

To summarize: in each of the last five years, a young Ethiopian has emerged from obscurity to win Dubai in a fast time. As you may know, race favorite Kenenisa Bekele is neither young nor unknown (though he is Ethiopian). If Bekele manages to run 2:02 or 2:03, it’s unlikely he’ll have company up front (no one has ever broken 2:04 in Dubai), but if he’s in the 2:04/2:05 range or WR pace proves too fast for him and he totally blows up, there’s definitely a chance that one of the lesser-known Ethiopians challenges him for the win.

Essentially, Dubai operates under the “spaghetti against the wall” theory: throw enough of it up there and something is bound to stick. The prizes for the top finishers are massive: $200,000 for first, $80,000 for third and $40,000 for third (that’s as much as the winner gets in Berlin), but appearance fees are minimal (we wouldn’t be surprised if Bekele was the only guy receiving an appearance fee) and there’s no prize money for anyone outside the top 10. Thus, there’s no incentive to hang back, which means everyone goes out hard chasing a high finish with the hope that they can hang on and snag a big payday (and secure them future appearance fees with a shiny new PR). It’s not an ideal

Thus, there’s no incentive to hang back, which means everyone goes out hard chasing a high finish with the hope that they can hang on and snag a big payday (and secure them future appearance fees with a shiny new PR). It’s not an ideal strategy, but put enough fit marathoners together in the same race, and someone is bound to run fast. Add in the one-shot-deal nature of the marathon and it’s not hard to envision a scenario in which Bekele loses, even though he’s the most accomplished guy in the field.

Conditions don’t look to be good for marathoning. The Weather.com forecast calls for a high of 80 degrees and low of 64 on Friday in Dubai. That means you’re looking at temps in the high 60s/low 70s during the race (which begins at 6:30 a.m. local time). Add in some wind (11 mph) and humidity (57%) and it’s far from ideal.

Top Contenders

We can’t analyze every guy in the field because 1) that would take forever and 2) some of these guys are so poorly-known that there’s not much to analyze anyway. Below, we look at some of the more prominent names entered in Friday’s race. Just don’t get mad at us if the eventual race winner isn’t mentioned in our preview (in fact, that’s been the case in each of the past two years).

Mekonnen after winning Dubai in 2014

Mekonnen after winning Dubai in 2014

Tsegaye Mekonnen — Ethiopia, 21 years old, 2:04:32 pb (2014 Dubai), 61:05 half
Marathons since start of 2015: DNF 2015 London, DNF 2015 Amsterdam, 3rd 2016 Dubai (2:04:46), 12th 2016 Boston (2:22:21), DNF 2016 Berlin

Mekonnen has had a very hit-or-miss career, as he’s failed to finish half of his eight career marathons. The good news is that both times he’s raced Dubai (he was a rabbit in 2013 but we’re not counting that), he’s performed extremely well: a debut 2:04:32 win in 2014 and a 2:04:46 that was good for third place last year. Mekonnen’s last two marathons went poorly (12th in Boston followed by a DNF in Berlin in September), but he entered Dubai last year off of two similarly bad results (DNFs in London and Amsterdam) and responded with a strong result. If he’s on, he dangerous.

Dino Sefir — Ethiopia, 28 years old, 2:04:50 pb (2012 Dubai), 59:42 half
Marathons since start of 2015: 1st 2016 Barcelona (2:09:31), 1st 2016 Ottawa (2:08:14)

Sefir has a gaudy PR (2:04:50) but, like many athletes who run fast in Dubai, he has been unable to replicate that form elsewhere: his next-fastest marathon is just 2:08:14. After racing just once in 2015 (a 29:24 road 10k), Sefir took a step toward his old form last year, winning Barcelona and Ottawa just 11 weeks apart. Though his times weren’t super impressive, he won both races comfortably (37 seconds in Barcelona, 1:50 in Ottawa) and conditions weren’t great: he ran into a headwind early in Barcelona while Ottawa was warm and humid (high 60s with 68% humidity). With a fast course and competition to chase in Dubai, Sefir could go much, much faster on Friday if he can hold his 2016 form.

Sisay Lemma — Ethiopia, 26 years old, 2:05:16 pb (2016 Dubai), 62:06 half
Marathons since start of 2015: 5th 2015 Dubai (2:07:06), 1st 2015 Vienna (2:07:31), 1st 2015 Frankfurt (2:06:26), 4th 2016 Dubai (2:05:16), 7th 2016 London (2:10:45), 4th 2016 Berlin (2:06:56)

Lemma has had a successful marathon career so far, winning four marathons since debuting in 2012. In addition, he’s notched two PRs in Dubai, clocking 2:07:06 to place fifth in 2015 and 2:05:16 to finish fifth a year ago. He also tackled his first World Marathon Majors last year, and though his first one was a bit rough (2:10:45), he finished seventh in a respectable field in London and clocked a solid 2:06:56 in Berlin. Dubai has been good to Lemma in the past and he clearly has talent. He could contend for the win here.

Mule Wasihun — Ethiopia, 23 years old, 2:05:44 pb (2016 Dubai), 60:08 half
Marathons since start of 2015: 11th 2015 Dubai (2:10:57), 5th 2016 Dubai (2:05:44), 9th 2016 Amsterdam (2:07:19)

Like Lemma, Wasihun has PR’d two straight years in Dubai, running 2:10:57 in his debut in 2015 and 2:05:44 for fifth last year before going on to take ninth in a deep Amsterdam Marathon in October in 2:07:18 (Read that again – 9th place in Amsterdam was 2:07:19, crazy.). Wasihun also produced a solid effort to take eighth at the World Half Marathon Championships last year, running 61:11 in foul conditions in Cardiff.

Shorter Distance Guys Moving Up

Tamirat Tola — Ethiopia, 25 years old, 2:06:17 pb (2014 Dubai), 60:06 half. 2016 Olympic 10,000 bronze medallist.
Marathons since start of 2015: DNF 2015 Berlin

Tola, who has finished two marathons and dropped out of a third, isn’t purely a 10k/half marathon guy, but that has been his forte over the past two years. Since the start of 2015, he’s finished sixth at the World Cross Country Championships, fifth at the World Half Marathon Championships and, most impressively, third in the Olympic 10,000-meter final last summer. Now he’s heading back to the roads for his first marathon in 16 months. Tola will hope for a better result than the DNF he recorded in Berlin last time out in September 2015, and based on his stellar 2016 season (three track 10,000’s at 27:06 or faster plus a 60:06 half marathon in the rain and wind of Cardiff), he should be in shape to pop off a big one. The big question is whether he can translate his terrific 10k/HM speed to the full marathon.

Birhanu Legese — Ethiopia, 22 years old, debut, 59:20 half

Legese’s 59:20 half marathon personal best is the fastest in the field, and he’s collected some impressive victories at 13.1 over the past two years, winning the 2015 Berlin Half, the 2015 Delhi Half (over world record holder Zersenay Tadese) and the 2016 RAK Half (over Stanley Biwott and Wilson Kipsang, both of whom ran 2:03 later that year). The win at RAK was the best sign for Legese’s full marathon hopes. The recent winners read like a who’s who of marathon stars: Sammy Wanjiru, Patrick Makau, Geoffrey Mutai, Dennis Kimetto, Geoffrey Kamworor, Lelisa Desisa. Legese, who has also run 59:45 in addition to his 59:20 PR from Delhi, clearly has oodles of talent, but still has to prove he can handle the full marathon distance.

Tariku Bekele — Ethiopia, 29 years old, debut, 61:39 half
Marathons since start of 2015: DNF 2015 Tokyo, DNF 2016 Fukuoka

Kenenisa’s younger brother was once one of the world’s best distance runners, winning the World Indoor 3k title in 2008 and an Olympic bronze medal at 10,000 meters in 2012. But, like his brother, he has battled injuries in recent years, with calf and Achilles issues sidelining him for most of the past two years: between 2015 and 2016, he finished just one race, taking 14th at the Beach to Beacon 10K last August.

Bekele dropped out of his first career marathon in Tokyo in 2015. He gave the distance another go in Fukuoka in December 2016. Bekele ran with the leaders there for 25 kilometers but began to crater at 35 kilometers. After splitting 21:27 from 35k to 40k, Bekele dropped out just before the finish line. After running so much of Fukuoka, it will be tough for Bekele to rebound and race a marathon just six and a half weeks later. We hope Dubai goes well for him. It’s really tough to drop out of your first three career marathons.

More: Talk about the marathon on our world famous fan forum / messageboard. MB: Great Breaking News: Bekele Is Healthy and Going For The WR – Plans on going out faster than anyone in history


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