After battling injuries for years, Bekele returned with a vengeance last fall, narrowly missing the world record in Berlin. Now fully healthy, he’ll take another crack at it on Friday in Dubai.
By Jonathan Gault
January 17, 2017
Very few things have eluded Kenenisa Bekele during his illustrious career. He set world records of 12:37.35 and 26:17.53 on the track, both of which have stood for well over a decade, and has won three Olympic and five World Championship gold medals, plus 11 World Cross Country titles. He doesn’t need the marathon world record to go down as the greatest distance runner in history, but he wants it, desperately.
Should Bekele erase Dennis Kimetto‘s 2:02:57 from the record books at Friday’s Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon (Thursday night U.S. time), the cash reward will be massive, likely well over half a million dollars ($200,000 for the win plus a $250,000 WR bonus from race organizers plus whatever WR bonus he has in his Nike contract). But this is about much more than just money. It’s also about history. Bekele would also become the first man ever to hold the 5,000-meter, 10,000-meter and marathon world records simultaneously.
And let one thing be clear: Bekele is going for the world record in Dubai. When I asked his manager Jos Hermens earlier today in a phone interview what Bekele’s goal for Friday’s race was, he replied, “Break the world record.”
If Bekele achieves his goal, he would also reclaim the world record for Ethiopia for the first time since legendary countryman Haile Gebrselassie held it from 2007-2011, and he’d beat rival Eliud Kipchoge to the punch. Kipchoge will be trying to break 2:00 for the marathon later this spring as part of Nike’s Breaking2 project, but Nike has already announced that whatever time he runs will not be record-eligible.
Unlike Bekele’s track career, where he dominated from the beginning, his marathon career has been full of ups and downs. He debuted with a stellar 2:05:04 course record in Paris in 2014 but was only fourth in Chicago that fall. Then he was forced to drop out midway through the 2015 Dubai Marathon, and injuries prevented him from racing again for over a year until he returned with a 2:06:36 third-place showing in London. Then, finally healthy after adjusting his training program, he delivered a virtuoso performance in Berlin in September, narrowly missing the world record by running 2:03:03 to set the stage for an all-out assault on the record in Dubai.
This year, Bekele has goals fitting of his stature as one of the sport’s all-time greats. Not only is he entered in Dubai, but he will also run the Virgin Money London Marathon in April and has stated that he wants to run the World Championships in August if selected for the Ethiopian team (though Bekele’s former coach Renato Canova doubts this will happen). That’s a lot to handle for an athlete who has spent the majority of the past seven years battling injuries. So why take all this on?
“Why not?” said Hermens, who added importantly that Bekele is now totally healthy. “It’s a totally different situation. He had many injuries and he worked very, very hard to get back. He’s now in perfect condition. He’s very fit now. He thinks he can do it. Once he’s in good shape and ready, the best for him is to continue [racing]. Of course, we can always look again at a break [depending on how Dubai goes].”
Immediately after missing out on the record in Berlin, Bekele knew he wanted to take another crack at it. Dubai was the next chance, and with no hiccups in his recovery from Berlin, Bekele decided to go for it. More than anything, it’s about opportunity. Bekele is 34 years old, and nothing is given in the future. If he’s fit and healthy now, it makes sense to take advantage.
“If you don’t take this opportunity, you could be injured before London,” Hermens said. “If the time is there, you better grab your chance.”
Hermens also knows that Eliud Kipchoge, who, like Bekele, is represented by Hermens’ Global Sports Communication, will be gunning for the world’s best this year, so for Bekele, “it would be nice to be on the list before [Kipchoge] is.”
There are several reasons to feel confident about Bekele’s WR chances on Friday. His 2:03 in Berlin was proof that, when fit, Bekele can challenge the WR, and if you look at the way he ran that race, Bekele left a few seconds on the table. As late as 35 kilometers, Bekele and Wilson Kipsang were under WR pace, but at that point the time became secondary to the win. Their 5k split from 35k to 40k of 14:59 (2:06:26 marathon pace) left them 21 seconds adrift of the WR at 40k, an insurmountable deficit. Yet Bekele covered his final 2.195 kilometers (40k to the finish) in a phenomenal 6:09, which is 4:30/mile or 1:58:13 marathon pace. Hermens believes that, had Bekele not had to deal with racing Kipsang over the final kilometers in Berlin, the world record would have fallen.
“If he had spread it a little bit better, he would have broken it in Berlin,” Hermens said.
Bekele will face good competition in Dubai, but no one on the level of Kipsang. If Bekele is on 2:02 pace through 35 kilometers on Friday, chances are he’ll be alone. Another difference from Bekele’s last marathon is the course. While Berlin has a well-earned reputation as the fastest course in the world, producing five of the six fastest times ever and the last six world records, it contains over 40 turns. Dubai (below) is considerably more simple: there are just four turns on the entire course.
Bekele may have a few other tricks up his sleeve as well. In Berlin, the Sub-2Hr Project provided Bekele with a special drink that it claims enabled him to take in more carbohydrates during the race. Hermens, one of the founders of the Sub-2Hr Project, confirmed that Bekele will use the drink again in Dubai. I asked if Hermens if Bekele had taken advantage of any other Sub-2Hr Project innovations during his buildup, or if he planned to use any of their innovations during Friday’s race.
“If so, we won’t tell you [before the race],” he said cryptically.
Of course, just because Bekele came close to the world record in Berlin doesn’t mean that he’ll break it in Dubai. Even though the course, in theory, is faster than Berlin’s, the course record in Dubai is only 2:04:23, a time that would not even crack the top 10 in Berlin. Part of the reason is because Berlin attracts bigger names, but a far bigger factor is the weather. Ideal marathoning temperature is somewhere between 40 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit. In Berlin last year, the high was 57 and the low was 44. In Dubai on Friday, Weather.com forecasts the high to be 80 and the low 64, with 57% humidity winds of 11 mph. Even with the race starting at 6:30 a.m. local time (35 minutes before sunrise), temperatures should still be in the high 60s/low 70s during the race. That is far from ideal.
For proof of why Berlin has historically been faster than Dubai, look no further than Bekele’s predecessor as king of global distance running, Haile Gebrselassie. Three times during his marathon prime, Gebrselassie ran Berlin followed by Dubai four months later and in every race the weather was better in Berlin. Here are the results (Gebrselassie won all six races):
|Berlin||9/30/07||2:04:26 (WR)||High 60, low 53|
|Dubai||1/18/08||2:04:53||High 66, low 52|
|Berlin||9/28/08||2:03:59 (WR)||High 65, low 45|
|Dubai||1/16/09||2:05:29||High 70, low 54|
|Berlin||9/20/09||2:06:08||High 79, low 50|
|Dubai||1/22/10||2:06:09||High 81, low 63|
Temperature information courtesy WeatherUnderground.com
On average, the high temperature was higher in Dubai (72 vs. 68), the low temperature was higher in Dubai (56 vs. 49) and Gebrselassie ran 39 seconds slower (2:05:30 vs. 2:04:51) in Dubai than Berlin.
In addition, while the absence of another 2:03 guy such as Kipsang may allow Bekele to focus solely on time, rather than place, over the final 5k, he could find himself having to do more work. In Berlin, Bekele was content to chase Kipsang, allowing the Kenyan to push the pace once the rabbits dropped out. Given the way Dubai usually plays out, even if Bekele goes out on world record pace, Bekele should have company once the rabbits drop at 30k. Remember, with almost no appearance fees, everyone in Dubai is gunning for the prize money, which means a lot of athletes will go out on suicidal pace and hope to hang on. Last year, 16 runners came through the half in 61:39 (Kimetto split 61:45 in his WR in 2014) and seven runners were on WR pace through 30k (the top three broke the 30k WR). But in the end, no one came close to the world record (the winning time was 2:04:24) as everyone slowed down significantly in the late stages of the race. If Bekele is to take down the record, he can’t count on his competition to continue dragging him along once the rabbits are gone; he’ll need to be able to do it himself, if necessary.
Though Hermens believes Bekele is in similar shape to when he ran 2:03:03 in Berlin, he admits that his training situation in Ethiopia’s capital of Addis Ababa is not ideal.
“It’s not America, it’s not Europe,” Hermens said. “You don’t have a team of fitness people. You don’t have those things available. It’s not what Mo Farah has.”
Hermens pointed out that Bekele usually has to travel to Europe to receive top-notch medical treatment, whether it’s to see Sub-2HR Project co-founder Yannis Pitsiladis at the University of Brighton in England or German doctor Hans-Wilhelm Müller-Wohlfahrt. Bekele also spends a lot of time managing his business ventures; he’s developing a piece of land outside Addis Ababa, which includes a hotel, golf course and training camp for elite athletes.
Hermens said he doesn’t know exactly how much time Bekele spends on his development project, but believes balancing his work with recovery is a challenge.
“He’s not an ideal athlete,” Hermens said. “My feeling is that I’m sure he’s still doing too much [work]. But again, maybe that motivates him and that’s what he needs…It’s his decision with his life what to do.”
Bekele is clearly the favorite in Dubai, but with a total of six men with PRs under 2:06 and 11 under 2:07, he’ll have plenty of competition. 2014 Dubai champ Tsegaye Mekonnen (2:04:32 pb), Barcelona/Ottawa Marathon champ Dino Sefir (2:04:50 pb), Olympic 10,000-meter bronze medallist Tamirat Tola and debutant Birhanu Legese (59:20 HM pb) are among the men who will try to defeat him. Even if they fall short, anyone bold enough to go out with Bekele could find be rewarded with a sizable personal best.
According to Hermens, the plan for Bekele in Dubai is to hit halfway in 61:00 accompanied by three pacers. This, in and of itself, is no mean feat. The fastest anyone has ever run the first half of a marathon is 61:11, achieved by Bekele (and six others) in Berlin last year. Even though 61:00 is well under world record pace, last year’s marathons in London (won in 2:03:05 by Kipchoge after a 61:24 first half) and Berlin convinced Hermens and Bekele that he should shoot for a 61:00 opening half.
“The trend is 61,” Hermens said. “That’s the trend that many athletes follow, so this is the way to do it, we feel.”
Ideally Bekele will reach that point with pacers Endeshaw Negesse, Amos Kipruto and Edwin Kiprop Kiptoo, who are scheduled to accompany him through 30k or perhaps beyond, if they can handle it. From there, it’s Bekele against the clock — and whichever racers are left.
More: Talk aboutBekele’s chances 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
LRC 2017 Dubai Marathon Men’s Preview: Can One of These Men Take Down Kenenisa Bekele? The field includes 2014 champ Tsegaye Mekonnen, 2:04 man Dino Sefir, Olympic 10k bronze medallist Tamirat Tola and half marathon stud Birhanu Legese.