Ethiopian Giants Kenenisa Bekele & Meseret Defar (Debut) Set to Tackle Sunday’s Amsterdam Marathon

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By Jonathan Gault
October 18, 2018

The 2018 TCS Amsterdam Marathon will be held on Sunday and the headliners are two Ethiopian legends who have combined to win five Olympic gold medals, Kenenisa Bekele and Meseret Defar. For Bekele, 36, it will be his 10th start in what has been an uneven marathon career; for Defar, 35, it will be her debut at the 26.2-mile distance. Both Bekele and Defar will be looking to use a strong performance on Sunday as a springboard to major marathon success in 2019, but winning won’t be easy, as both of last year’s champions return: Lawrence Cherono of Kenya (who set the course record of 2:05:09 in 2017) and Tadelech Bekele of Ethiopia (who lowered her PR to 2:21:40 in finishing 3rd in London in April).

In the U.S., you can watch the race live at 3:30 a.m. ET on NBC Sports Gold; there is also a link to a live stream on the race website, though it may be geo-blocked.

Ahead of Sunday’s race, I spoke to the agents of both Bekele (Jos Hermens) and Defar (Mark Wetmore). Here’s what I learned:

Bekele, who was snubbed by the World Marathon Majors, is hoping for bounce-back performance in Amsterdam

Kenenisa Bekele at 2017 BMW Berlin Marathon

Kenenisa Bekele at 2017 BMW Berlin Marathon

The biggest question I wanted to know about Bekele was why he is running Amsterdam. He’s run Berlin each of the past two years, clocking a stellar 2:03:03 to win in 2016 before dropping out in 2017. But 2018 Berlin came and went without Bekele, as did Chicago (where he finished 4th in 2014), and he’s not running New York next month. So why isn’t Bekele running a World Marathon Major this fall?

“Well basically [in terms of] the World Marathon Majors, nobody was interested,” Hermens says. “If you are the second [fastest in the history of] the world, as he was as when this season was starting before Berlin, and you don’t get an invitation, I’m surprised. What are you going to do with our sport if you don’t want the second-fastest guy in the world?”

Bekele has a few strong performances in the past few years — in addition to his 2:03:03 in Berlin, he was 3rd in London in 2016 and 2nd in 2017 —  but his last two results have not been great After dropping out of Berlin last year, he went to London in April and finished 6th in 2:08:53, although it must be pointed out that he did go out in that race in a blazing 61:01 for the first half. Hermens believes that those two results led to the lack of interest from the elite coordinators at the World Marathon Majors this fall.

But…this is the greatest runner of all time we’re talking about here. None of the majors wanted Bekele?

This is life,” Hermens says. “He is still a good runner [but] he has to show something…This is our world. It doesn’t matter if you’re an artist or a politician or a sportsperson, you can be killed in one week — not literally killed. I was a bit surprised but we’re happy he is in Amsterdam.”

Looking ahead to Amsterdam, Hermens says that Bekele’s training has been “okay,” noting that he dealt with a couple of minor injuries. But Hermens stresses: “okay” doesn’t mean bad. It could even mean very good.

“Not everything perfect, but okay,” Hermens says. “He has not had one marathon yet with perfect training, even when he went 2:03:03 in Berlin two years ago.”

Hermens says Bekele doesn’t have a time goal in mind: the aim is simply to win. And while Amsterdam doesn’t boast the same top-end talent as the majors — apart from Bekele, no one in this year’s field has broken 2:05 — it makes up for that in depth. There have only been three races in history in which 10 guys broke 2:08:30: the 2012 Dubai Marathon, and the last two Amsterdam Marathons (five men broke 2:06 last year). A win on Sunday for Bekele would be a big step toward returning to the top of the podium at a major.

And what about the world record? Bekele, who already owns world records in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters, came just six seconds short of the marathon record two years ago, but that record entered another stratosphere with Eliud Kipchoge‘s 2:01:39 in Berlin last month. Does Bekele still think he can break the record, now that Kipchoge has had his say?

“If you ask him, he wants to do that,” Hermens says.

That is a discussion for another day. First, Amsterdam.

Meseret Defar targeting win in marathon debut

Deaf piled up medals on the track; now she'll try to do the same in the marathon

Defar piled up medals on the track; now she’ll try to do the same in the marathon

Defar, the 2004 and 2012 Olympic champion at 5,000 meters, intended on making her marathon debut in Tokyo in February, but wound up withdrawing from Tokyo the week of the race after experiencing some lower leg problems (described at the time as a calf injury). Wetmore says that because Defar knows what it takes to reach the top of the sport, she wants to make sure that she is at her very best when she does race.

“I think in a good way she’s nervous about debuting and she wants to be perfect when she gets out there,” Wetmore says.

That approach allowed Defar to put together a storied career in which she racked up eight global titles on the track. But as she has transitioned to the roads, it has worked against her at times.

“In the weeks leading up [to Tokyo], in retrospect, she probably should have backed off a little bit,” Wetmore says. “[She was] just [trying] to get more and more fit and she set herself back just a couple of weeks out.

“She definitely had some knee and shin problems over the last couple years. She would come back in fits and starts. In ’16 she came back and ran well at the World Indoors (taking silver behind Genzebe Dibaba) and then she gets banged up (and the 2016 Olympics with injury), and I think a little bit is she’s a bit of a perfectionist. If she’s not doing workouts she was doing before she won [the 2012] London [Olympics], then she puts pressure on herself to get to those levels.

“[She had some] small injuries that became bigger injuries because she didn’t allow herself to hear the messages from her body. But I think that comes with the territory with people who are that good.”

Defar has raced just once this year year, clocking 68:26 at the Rock ‘n’ Roll San Diego Half Marathon in June to win by three and a half minutes. That’s well off her PR of 66:09, set in Philadelphia five years ago, but it was also before she had even started this marathon buildup. Defar took a break after that race to recharge and ensure that she was completely healthy, and her Amsterdam buildup has gone well.

“She’s coming in with good training,” Wetmore says. “She’s fit.”

Wetmore says Defar chose Amsterdam for her debut for a couple of reasons. First, the weather is traditionally good for running fast and that appears to be the case for this year. Race day temps should be ideal as they likely will be high 40s to mid 50s during the race (the forecasted high is 63 degrees on Sunday). Second, there isn’t going to be anyone running a pace that Defar can’t handle — at least initially. The first two majors of the 2018 fall season produced winning times of 2:18:11 and 2:18:35, both among the 10 fastest marathons ever run by a woman. That’s a tough ask for any runner, let alone one making her debut. In Amsterdam, instead of debating how fast to go out and which pack to run with, Defar can focus simply on trying to win the race; the time should take care of itself.

Wetmore says he and Defar haven’t talked much about a specific time goal, but he thinks that the course record of 2:21:09 could be in danger.

“I think she’d like to get as close to 2:20 as possible,” Defar says. “She probably thinks that 2:20 is possible. I haven’t talked to her much about time. I don’t want her to feel any extra pressure.”


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