2016 BMW Berlin Marathon Men’s Preview: Legends Kenenisa Bekele & Wilson Kipsang Square Off in a Field Full of Men Searching for Redemption

By LetsRun.com
September 23, 2016

Fall marathon season is here, and the first stop is Germany for the 43rd BMW Berlin Marathon. In recent years, Berlin has been the stage for a series of world record attempts, with six WRs in the German capital since 2003. While the fast, flat course remains unchanged, the world record is unlikely to fall in the 2016 edition considering the man most likely to break it — defending champion Eliud Kipchoge — ran another marathon in Brazil last month. You may have heard about it.

Unlike 2015, where the main question was whether Kipchoge would break the world record or not, the drama this year lies in who will win the race. The 2016 field is full of guys with something to prove. Emmanuel Mutai and Wilson Kipsang are two of the top marathoners of their generation, and they sit at #3 and #4 on the all-time marathon list (both efforts came in Berlin), but the last time either of them won a marathon was almost two years ago (Kipsang in New York). After an injury-plagued 2015, Kenenisa Bekele returned to prominence with a third-place showing in London in April but has yet to win an Abbott World Marathon Major. 2:04 man Tsegaye Mekonnen is still trying to prove he can run well outside of Dubai, while Eliud Kiptanui, the top returner from last year, will try to move up one spot and earn his first marathon victory in over six years. Can one of these men find glory in Berlin, or will a dark horse emerge as champion?

We give you the need-to-know details for Sunday’s race below (it starts at 3:15 a.m. ET if you want to watch live) followed by a preview of the men’s race.

What: 2016 BMW Berlin Marathon

When: Sunday, September 25, 3:15 a.m. ET (9:15 a.m. local time)

Where: Berlin, Germany

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How to watch: You can stream it live starting at 2:30 a.m. ET through NBC Sports or watch it tape-delayed on NBC Sports Network at 7:30 p.m. ET on Monday.

Abbott World Marathon Majors

The Abbott World Marathon Majors consists of eight major marathons — Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago, New York, the World Championships and the Olympics — with the winner of each series taking home $500,000. The current series runs from the 2016 Boston Marathon to the 2017 Boston Marathon, and right now Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge is the leader with 50 points thanks to his victories in London and at the Olympics. Kipchoge cannot be caught, only tied, as athletes can only count two marathons per cycle. Since none of the guys entered in Berlin have won a marathon in this cycle, they’d need to win here and in Tokyo or Boston next year just to tie Kipchoge. And even then, they’d still likely lose out on the $500,000 grand prize as in the event of a tie, the WMM race directors hold a vote to determine the champion and no one is topping Kipchoge’s resume (2:03:05 CR in London and Olympic gold).

Important links: LRC 2015 Berlin Marathon coverage * Berlin Marathon live results page * Race website * Course map

Men’s elite field

Name Country PB Comment
Emmanuel Mutai Kenya 2:03:13 2nd in ’14, but has struggled since. 4th last year.
Wilson Kipsang Kenya 2:03:23 Set the then world record (2:03:23) to win here in 2013. 5th in London this year. Does he have more in the tank at age 34?
Tsegaye Mekonnen Ethiopia 2:04:32 3rd Dubai, 12th Boston already in ’16
Kenenisa Bekele Ethiopia 2:05:04 Signaled his return to form with 3rd in London in April
Vincent Kipruto Kenya 2:05:13 2011 WC silver medallist won Xiamen in Jan.
Sisay Lemma Ethiopia 2:05:16 3rd Dubai, 7th London so far this year
Eliud Kiptanui Kenya 2:05:21 2nd last year
Evans Chebet Kenya 2:05:33 2nd in all 3 career marathons, including Seoul in March
Mark Kiptoo Kenya 2:06:00 Ran PR at 39 last fall and will be going for masters WR
Alfers Lagat Kenya 2:06:58 6th in Paris in April
Jacob Kendagor Kenya 2:07:47 7th in Seoul in March
Yuki Kawauchi Japan 2:08:14 Marathon #6 of ’16; coming off win at Gold Coast in July (2:09:01)
Suleiman Simotwo Kenya 2:08:49
Kibrom Ghebregiabhier Eritrea 2:09:36
Geoffrey Ronoh Kenya 2:10:09
Yohanes Gebregergish Eritrea 2:10:44
Nick Arciniaga USA 2:11:30 10th at the Olympic Trials
Mikaell Ekvall Sweden 2:12:07
Falk Cierpinski Germany 2:13:30
Marcel Bräutigam Germany 2:17:05
Steffen Uliczka Germany 2:20:19

The Duel

Wilson Kipsang — Kenya, 34 years old, 2:03:23 pb (2013 Berlin), 58:59 half
Marathons since start of 2015: 
2nd 2015 London (2:04:47), DNF 2015 Worlds, 4th 2015 New York (2:12:45), 5th 2016 London (2:07:52)

Kenenisa Bekele — Ethiopia, 34 years old, 2:05:04 pb (2014 Paris), 60:09 half
Marathons since start of 2015:
DNF 2015 Dubai, 3rd 2016 London (2:06:36)

There are a bunch of guys who could win this thing, but the two biggest names by far are Kipsang — the world’s greatest marathoner B.K. (Before Kipchoge) — and Bekele, one of the greatest runners in history and coming off a resurgent third-place performance in April’s London Marathon. Watching those two men square off for 26.2 miles through the streets of Berlin should be a treat for running fans.

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Though both Kipsang and Bekele have been exceptional in the past, each man comes to the German capital with something to prove. Kipsang wants to show that, at 34, he’s still among the world’s best marathoners. Kipsang held that status as recently as the spring of 2015, when he was second to Kipchoge in London after stringing together three straight major victories (2013 Berlin, 2014 London, 2014 New York). But he wound up dropping out of the 2015 World Championships and was only fourth in New York before taking fifth in London this spring. For most runners, top-five finishes in New York and London are results to be celebrated, but when you’ve been at the top, as Kipsang has, all you want to do is get back there. He thinks he can in Berlin.

“I began much later than others (Kipsang only began running seriously at age 21) and am convinced that I still have a couple of good years in me,” Kipsang told Berlin Marathon organizers. “And as far as my last two marathons are concerned: in Beijing I struggled in the heat, needed a long time to recover and in London I was in pain after falling at 30 kilometers.” Kipsang was still talking confidently at the Berlin pre-race press conference as he said, “I feel good and believe I have the potential to attempt the world record once more.”

We’ll give Kipsang a pass for the World Champs in Beijing last year. Conditions were very tough that day and he was far from the only athlete to struggle (25 of the 67 starters dropped out). Kipsang may have fallen in London, but he was already getting dropped at that point. To be fair, though, he was getting dropped by two studs in Kipchoge and Stanley Biwott, so the fact that he was able to still finish fifth while in pain is impressive.

Kipsang certainly isn’t talking as if he’s done. He told race organizers he wants to break the world record and doubled down on that claim in Kenya’s Daily Nation this week, saying that he feels in similar shape to when he ran 2:03:23 to set the WR in Berlin three years ago. Based on what he’s done the past few years, we’d be surprised if Kipsang runs that fast, but we believe that he’s fit, and if that’s the case, there aren’t many guys in this field who can touch him.

Bekele, however, is one of them. Four races into his marathon career and we still don’t truly know what Bekele is capable of over 26.2 miles. His 2014 debut in Paris was electric, a 2:05:04 course record, but he tinkered with his routine before his next effort in Chicago and was only fourth against tougher competition. 2015 was a lost year due a persistent calf problem (he was forced to drop out in Dubai and did not race again). This year, with help from gurus Yannis Pitsiladis and Hans-Wilhelm Müller-Wohlfahrt, Bekele was able to make it to the start line in London in one piece and wound up third in 2:06:36. Bekele said that he was only at 90% coming into that race. His potential was tantalizing.

Anyone hoping to see an all-out assault on the world record in Berlin will be disappointed, however.

“The fire burns still,” Bekele told race organizers. “I know that I can still run faster and my time will come. That is what drives me…The plus side is that I am at last able to train without pain. I would say that I am 80%. It will be good enough to set a personal best, a time around 2:04, but I don’t think it’s enough for the world record.”

If Bekele is finally able to train without pain, that’s big; he has battled injuries that prevented him from training consistently for most of the 2010s. Bekele, like Kipsang, is 34 years old (Bekele is three months younger), but Bekele has been competing with the world’s best for much longer. He was the silver medallist in the short race at World XC as an 18-year-old in 2001 and for the next eight years pushed his body as hard as it would go. He ran (and won) the short and long race at World XC every year from 2002 to 2006, and would follow those victories with a summer of chasing fast times (and we mean 12:40s/12:50s fast) on the European circuit before kicking everyone’s ass at Worlds or the Olympics. That was his pattern from 2001 to 2009.

Bekele’s approach won him many supporters and cemented his place among the sport’s legends, but since his last global gold, at age 27 in 2009, he’s been a different runner. The ensuing seven years have been pockmarked by injuries, and while we can’t say for sure, it makes sense that Bekele’s body might have started to breakdown after the stress of the tremendous workload he put it through during his prime. Bekele’s lifetime base and his immense natural talent means that if he’s able to put together a few months of healthy training, he can summon a world-class performance. And that could well be the case on Sunday — even at 80%, Bekele still believes he can run 2:04. The flip side with Bekele is that we may never see him realize his full marathon potential. Bekele has been trying to get back to full health since 2009 and has never quite done it. In his mid-30s, it’s not going to get any easier. The dream is that Bekele comes out and runs 2:04 in Berlin and then returns to 100% in time for a race for the ages against Kipchoge in London next year.

There is reason to be optimistic, however. Bekele’s manager Jos Hermens told LetsRun.com that Bekele’s buildup, which he conducted mostly alone in Addis Ababa, went “well, better than before London” and that he is “100% healthy.” We hope that’s the case as few runners are more exciting to watch than Bekele in full flight.

Because of what he accomplished on the track, it’s almost impossible for Bekele to live up to the expectations placed upon him for the marathon. An Olympic gold looks like a pipe dream at this point, and the world record will be very tough. But we shouldn’t lose respect for what he has accomplished. Bekele was third in the world’s most competitive marathon in April. Add in a victory in Berlin and that’s a terrific year, by anyone’s standards.

We don’t have much recent evidence to go on for Kipsang or Bekele other than their words, as neither has raced since June. Kipsang ran 27:59 on the roads in the Netherlands; Bekele dropped out of the Ethiopian 10,000 trials, though he did beat Kipsang head-to-head, 28:08 to 28:15, at the Great Manchester 10K in May. It’s also worth noting that Bekele beat Kipsang in their only marathon matchup, in London this year. The forecast is good for Sunday in Berlin, if a little warm (high of 74 degrees Fahrenheit and little wind, though temps should be in the 50s/60s given the race is in the morning), so weather shouldn’t play a major role. And tactically, not much happens until the rabbits drop out around 30 kilometers. The biggest thing Kipsang and Bekele have to make sure of is that they don’t overcook it. In London, both men went out in 61:24 for the first half of the marathon, and though they finished third and fifth, both ran big negative splits (61:24/65:12 for Bekele, 61:24/66:28 for Kipsang). If they go out similarly fast and die in Berlin, they could be vulnerable to someone running them down late. Most likely, however, the top contenders will also go with the leaders (we haven’t seen exact splits for the pace groups yet) for fear of being dropped. In Berlin, the winning time is typically very fast (2:04:15 is the slowest since 2011) and chances are, someone who goes out quick will be able to hold it to the finish.

Six More Who Could Win

Kipsang and Bekele are the two biggest names, and if they’re close to the top of their games, we expect one of those two to win on Sunday. But there are questions about both me. If they slip up, expect one of these four to break the tape.

Emmanuel Mutai — Kenya, 31 years old, 2:03:13 pb (2014 Berlin), 59:52 half
Marathons since start of 2015:
 11th 2015 London (2:10:54), 4th 2015 Berlin (2:07:46), 7th 2016 Tokyo (2:10:23)

Mutai, like Kipsang, was one of the world’s best and most consistent marathoners in the early part of this decade, but he’s stagnated since running 2:03:13 for second in Berlin two years ago. Since then, his track record — 11th in London, 4th in Berlin, 7th in Tokyo — is unimpressive. Mutai may be three years younger than Kipsang, but he’s got more marathons in his legs (this will be the 20th of Mutai’s career). Freaks like Meb are the exception; most guys only have a limited number of marathons in their legs, and Mutai may have hit his limit. But Berlin has been kind to him in the past (he earned World Champs silver there in ’09 and set his PR there in ’14), and he was fourth last year.

Eliud Kiptanui — Kenya, 27 years old, 2:05:21 pb (2015 Berlin), 61:24 half
Marathons since start of 2015: 
7th 2015 Seoul (2:10:11), 2nd 2015 Berlin (2:05:21), 6th 2016 Tokyo (2:08:55)

Kiptanui only lost to Kipchoge in Berlin last year, and he’s finished in the top five of this race on three occasions (2010, 2014, 2015). That run in Berlin last year, a personal best and first time under 2:07 in three and a half years, looked as if it could have been a breakthrough for the 26-year-old, but he took a step back in his next marathon in Tokyo, running 2:08:55 for sixth. Kiptanui can mix it up with the front of the pack on his best day, but he’s not terribly consistent. Fortunately for him, you don’t need to be consistent to win a major marathon. With no Kipchoge in the field, if Kiptanui can improve on last year’s 2:05:21, he’ll be in the thick of things on Sunday.

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)

Mekonnen exploded onto the scene with his debut 2:04:32 victory in Dubai as an 18-year-old in 2014, but he’s been very inconsistent since then. Marathon #2 (5th at 2014 London) was solid, but since then he’s gone DNF-DNF-3rd (2016 Dubai)-12th (2016 Boston). Mekonnen clearly has talent, and as someone who’s excelled on the flat Dubai layout, he may be well-suited to run Berlin. He’s a high-risk, high-reward pick.

Sisay Lemma — Ethiopia, 25 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)

Lemma was only seventh in his World Marathon Major debut in London, but his results over the past two years — wins in Vienna and Frankfurt last year and a PR in Dubai in January — suggest that he’s capable of running at the front of the pack in Berlin.

Evans Chebet — Kenya, 28 years old, 2:05:33 pb (2016 Seoul), 60:13 half
Marathons since start of 2015: 
2nd 2015 Prague (2:08:50), 2nd 2016 Seoul (2:05:33)

Chebet has run three career marathons and taken second in each one, clocking a couple of 2:08’s in Prague in 2014 and 2015 before running a big PR of 2:05:33 in Seoul in March, losing only to drug cheat Wilson Erupe.

Vincent Kipruto — Kenya, 29 years old, 2:05:13 pb (2010 Rotterdam), 60:19 half
Marathons since start of 2015: 
14th 2015 Paris (2:13:56), 1st 2016 Xiamen (2:10:18)

Kipruto, the 2011 World Champs silver medallist, is a long shot, but he has placed highly in a couple of half marathons this year (won Barcelona in 62:54 in February, 61:48 for second in Hamburg in June) and won the Xiamen Marathon in January.

Master’s World Record Alert

Mark Kiptoo — Kenya, 40 years old, 2:06:00 pb (2015 Eindhoven), 60:29 half
Marathons since start of 2015: 
2nd 2015 Rotterdam (2:07:21), 3rd 2015 Eindhoven (2:06:00)

Kiptoo ran 2:06:00 in Eindhoven last fall, which would have smashed Kenneth Mungara‘s master’s world record of 2:08:38 had Kiptoo been eight months older at the time. Now that he’s celebrated the big 4-0 (he turned 40 in June), Kiptoo will have a crack at the record and has a great shot to take it down. Kiptoo only turned to the marathon at age 37 in 2013 but since then he’s put up an impressive track record, breaking 2:08 in all but one of his five career marathons (a 2:13 in Paris two years ago is the lone exception). Obviously it’s hard to keep up that level of performance as you age, but given Kiptoo’s recent success and the fast Berlin course, he should break Mungara’s record with room to spare.

The American

Nick Arciniaga — USA, 33 years old, 2:11:30 pb (2011 Houston), 63:22 half
Marathons since start of 2015: 
14th 2015 Boston (2:18:02), 16th 2015 New York (2:22:07), 10th 2016 Olympic Trials (2:16:25), 6th 2016 Grandma’s (2:17:12)
Prep races: 68:27 for 12th at America’s Finest City Half Marathon on August 21; 63:24 for 29th at US 20K Champs on September 5

Arciniaga, the only American in the elite field, may be 33 years old, but he still has plenty of goals in front of him, and as guys like Kiptoo and Meb Keflezighi have shown, you can have success as a marathoner into your 40’s. One of Arciniaga’s goals is to earn a top-10 finish at every World Marathon Major. He’s already knocked Boston and New York off the list, and now it’s time to head abroad.

“I have been wanting to get out to Berlin (as well and London and Tokyo) for a few years now,” Arciniaga wrote in an email to LetsRun.com. “I made the decision early in the year that this was going to be the year. I am hoping to find some magic out there on the lightning fast roads and get a big pr.”

Though Arciniaga’s PR is now over five years old, he’s never been in a race like Berlin. His plan is to stick with the 2:10 pace group (there are two rabbits and two other runners planning on running that pace) and negative-split the second half to finish with a sub-2:10.

Can he do it? Well, Arciniaga’s recent marathons have been a mixed bag. He was only 14th and 16th in Boston and New York last year, though he managed a respectable 10th at the Olympic Trials in February. Most recently, Arciniaga ran 2:17:12 for 6th at Grandma’s Marathon in June. His prep races did not go well, but Arciniaga didn’t back off his training (he peaked at 140 mpw) for either race and said that workouts and long runs have gone great.

“After realizing things were not going well during the races I changed tactics to make the effort more of a marathon tempo rather than race effort,” Arciniaga said. “Still both results were much slower than I would have hoped for for tempos. However, now that I’m tapered, my confidence is still very high for the marathon.”

Confidence has never been an issue for Arciniaga throughout his career, so expect him to go for it on Sunday. And even if he comes up short, he should still be able to move one step closer to another goal: Doug Kurtis‘s 76 (!) career sub-2:20 marathons. Arciniaga has a lot of work to do — he’s currently at 17 — but if he could run 2:16 in the heat of Los Angeles in February, a sub-2:20 in Berlin should be no problem.

LRC prediction: Kipsang FTW. Kipsang is on the short list of greatest marathoners ever, and even in a “down” spell, he’s still managed to finish top-five in New York and London. He says he’s fit, and though we expect the world record to remain standing, he’s our pick for the win. Yes, Bekele has had the better of him so far in 2016, but Kipsang’s overall track record is better in the marathon than Bekele’s. We would be quite surprised if someone other than these two wins on Sunday.

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