A Look Back at a Race for the Ages: Eliud Kipchoge Takes Down Kenenisa Bekele & El Guerrouj at the 2003 World Championships

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LRC Classics Unveiled

By Jonathan Gault
September 19, 2017

On Sunday, Kenenisa Bekele and Eliud Kipchoge will face each other at the 2017 BMW Berlin Marathon. It will mark the 23rd time the two legends of the sport have squared off, and none of the previous 22 have been quite as hyped as this one, with Bekele, Kipchoge, and Kenyan star Wilson Kipsang attacking the world record in a marathon for the ages.

We’ll spend plenty of time this week previewing the action in Berlin, but before Bekele and Kipchoge renew acquaintances in the German capital, we wanted to revisit one of their earliest — and best — matchups, at the 2003 World Championships in Paris. This is something we’ve been wanting to do for a while. LetsRun.com has only been around since 2000 but there were plenty of great races before then — or in the case of this one, during the early days of the site when we weren’t comprehensively recapping every major race on the planet. Now that the track season is over, we’ll try to bring you some of these “classic” race recaps from time to time. If you have a suggestion for a classic race that you’d like to see us write about, shoot us an email.

Setting the Scene

No one knew it at the time, but three of the greatest distance runners in history battled in the 5,000-meter final at the 2003 World Championships in the Stade de France, just north of Paris.

The first was Kenenisa Bekele of Ethiopia. Entering 2003, Bekele, then 21, had been a cross country prodigy, but had yet to establish himself on the track. At the start of the year, his 5,000 personal best was 13:13, and he had never run a 10,000 on the track. But after sweeping the short and long races at the World Cross Country Championships in March 2003 (the second of five consecutive years he would accomplish that feat), Bekele began dropping fast times all over the place. On June 1 in Hengelo, he ran 26:53.70 in his first-ever 10,000 to become the 14th man in history to break 27 minutes. More important was who Bekele beat: the runner-up in Hengelo was Haile Gebrselassie (26:54.58), the world record holder, winner of the past two Olympic titles and, at that point in time, indisputably the greatest 10,000-meter runner in history. Three weeks later in Oslo, Bekele ran 12:52.26 for 5,000 meters, a 20+ second personal best, to move into the all-time top 10 at that distance (Kipchoge was third in that race in 12:52.61; four men broke 12:53).

In the 10,000 final on the first Sunday of Worlds, Bekele won his first world title on the track, in the process setting the championship record of 26:49.57. That race was so impressive that it may deserve its own classic recap at some point as it featured a terrific duel between Bekele and Gebrselassie (2nd in 26:50.77), with Bekele running his final 5k in a ridiculous 12:57. On August 31, one week later (after the 5000 prelim on August 28), the rising star Bekele returned to the track seeking to become the first man to ever win World Championship titles at both 5,000 and 10,000 meters.

(Editor’s note: It should be pointed out that Gebrselassie only tried for the double once — in 1993 when he got silver in the 5,000 — maybe in part because they ran two rounds of the 10,000 at the 1993, 1995 and 1997 Worlds).

The second man going for a historic double at the 2003 Worlds was someone whose name was already plastered all over the record books: Morocco’s Hicham El Guerrouj. The world record holder in the 1500 and mile, El Guerrouj, then 28, had been almost unbeatable over the previous seven years. Per All-Athletics, El Guerrouj lost only three races from 1996 to 2002. Unfortunately for him, two of those were Olympic finals (he fell in 1996 and took silver behind Noah Ngeny in 2000), but coming into 2003 he was heavily favored to win his fourth straight world title at 1500 meters and had not lost a race at any distance in over two years.

With his dominance over 1500 meters unquestioned, El Guerrouj decided to add the 5,000 to his repertoire in 2003. On June 12 in Ostrava, he ran his first 5,000-meter race in 11 years and clocked 12:50.24 to make himself the seventh-fastest performer in history (he was actually well beaten in this race as Saif Saaeed Shaheen ran 12:48.81). El Guerrouj entered Worlds with the fastest time in the 5,000 field (Shaheen ran only the steeplechase) and, after cruising to the 1500 title in Paris on August 27, he doubled back for the 5,000 final four days later (the 5000 prelims were the day after the 1,500 final). Like Bekele, he was going for an impressive double, trying to become the first man to win World Championship titles at both 1500 and 5,000 meters.

Bekele-El Guerrouj was the perfect matchup. Two world champions squaring off over an intermediate distance, both attempting a legendary, never-before-seen feat. It was the ultimate test of strength vs. speed, the established star of the current generation against the rising star of the next one.

Of course, neither of them wound up winning the race.

On paper, if anyone was to spring the upset, it was probably going to be 23-year-old Kenyan Abraham Chebii. Going into Worlds, Chebii had picked up 5,000m wins at the Pre Classic, Paris, Rome, and the Kenyan Trials. His PR of 12:52.99 was just .73 behind Bekele’s, and he had actually beaten Bekele in their most recent meeting in Rome, seven weeks before Worlds.

Few people gave any thought to the gap-toothed 18-year-old* Eliud Kipchoge, now arguably the greatest marathoner ever. Kipchoge was extremely talented — he had won the junior race at World XC in March and in June, he set the world junior record for 5,000 meters by running 12:52.61. But Kipchoge was 0-1 against Bekele on the year (they had faced each other in Oslo) and was not even the top Kenyan entered at Worlds. That was Chebii, who had beaten Kipchoge in two of their three races before Worlds, including the Kenyan Trials, where Kipchoge barely squeaked onto the team, finishing 0.2 ahead of Sammy Kipketer to take third. Kipchoge had won the 5,000 at the DN Galan in Stockholm three weeks before Worlds, and, unlike Bekele and El Guerrouj, he would not be doubling back in Paris. Given his accomplishments, he seemed a good bet to win a medal at some point, perhaps as soon as 2003, but he was nobody’s pick for gold.

*Kipchoge’s listed birthdate is November 5, 1984, which would have made 18 at the time of the 2003 Worlds. Many in the sport believe Kipchoge to be older than that (when we spoke with him earlier this year, he said he was 19 at the 2003 Worlds), but his exact age remains a mystery.

The Race

Bekele, knowing he was up against a 3:26 guy in El Guerrouj, forced a fast pace from the gun. He hit 400 meters in 60.53 seconds, 800 meters in 2:01.09 (12:36 pace) and ran almost every step of the first two miles with a two-meter lead on the field. But even Bekele — who would run the world record of 12:37 the following year — could not maintain that pace in a championship final, his third race in eight days. He slowed slightly over the second 800, hitting 1600 in 4:05.38, and more significantly during the second mile. Kipchoge actually took the lead from Bekele and as the lead pack, now down to eight men, passed 3200 (8:18.26 — still 12:58 pace, by the way), Kipchoge, Bekele, and El Guerrouj were running 1-2-3.

Kipchoge wouldn’t hold the lead for long, however. A lap later, he signaled to Bekele to take over the lead, which Bekele did at 3600 meters after Kipchoge had towed the field through the slowest lap of the race (64.79). Bekele didn’t want to lead at that point either, and as the field approached three laps to go, he began drifting out toward lane 2, looking back at El Guerrouj on his inside to take the pace. For one brief moment at 3900 meters, El Guerrouj, Bekele, and Kipchoge were running three abreast at the front before Kipchoge took over once again. And once again, they had run the slowest lap of the race (65.41) to reach 4000m in 10:28.46.

Finally, El Guerrouj had had enough, and with 850m remaining he moved to the lead, immediately stringing out the seven-man pack. Bekele followed, with the four Kenyans — Kipchoge, Chebii, John Kibowen and defending champion Richard Limo, occupying the next four places. El Guerrouj split 60.19 from 4000m to 4400m and still led at the bell (11:59.27). Kipchoge had been running in fourth with 450 to go but, sensing that he might become boxed by Chebii (running on the outside of lane 1 in third), moved outside and onto El Guerrouj’s shoulder at the bell, passing Bekele for second in the process.

El Guerrouj attacked in earnest on the backstretch, and though Kipchoge and Bekele were able to separate from the rest of the field in second and third, El Guerrouj was separating from them, with three meters on Kipchoge as they entered the final turn. That gap remained the same halfway through the turn, but as they approached the home straight, Kipchoge began cutting into the deficit, pulling onto El Guerrouj’s shoulder once again. Bekele followed the move and they were three wide coming off the turn with Kibowen, making a late charge for bronze, a few meters behind on the inside.

The three legends — one present, two future — battled for 50 meters, El Guerrouj in lane 1, Kipchoge in lane 2, and Bekele a little further removed in lane 3. It became evident midway down the home straight that the 10,000 man was outmatched in this kick: it was down to Kipchoge, head bobbing furiously from side to side, and El Guerrouj, the greatest miler of all time. At that point, Kipchoge had half a step on El Guerrouj on his inside and as they neared the finish line, both men instinctively drifted toward the rail, somehow sharing lane 1 without one impeding the other.

Kipchoge was pressing El Guerrouj as he had not been pressed since the Olympic 1500 final in Sydney, and just like in that race, where he did not have an answer for the precocious Kenyan on his outside, he could do nothing to eat into Kipchoge’s lead. El Guerrouj was spent. Five meters from the line, he broke form and began leaning early, desperately early, for the line. It was no use. Kipchoge dipped his head just before the line and held on for the win in 12:52.79, a championship record and .04 ahead of El Guerrouj in second, thanks to a 53.4-second last lap. Bekele ran 12:53.12 — over five seconds under the previous championship record — but that was only good enough for bronze in a race that saw the top six men break 13 minutes.

Race video and results below. We have more analysis below the results.

Click here for full race (Spanish commentary)

Results

Pl. Athlete / Team Cnt. Birth Result Score
1. Eliud KIPCHOGE KEN 84 12:52.79 1253 CR
2. Hicham EL GUERROUJ MAR 74 12:52.83 1253
3. Kenenisa BEKELE ETH 82 12:53.12 1252
4. John Kemboi KIBOWEN KEN 69 12:54.07 1248 PB
5. Abraham CHEBII KEN 79 12:57.74 1235
6. Gebregziabher GEBREMARIAM ETH 84 12:58.08 1234 PB
7. Richard LIMO KEN 80 13:01.13 1223 SB
8. Zersenay TADESE ERI 82 13:05.57 1207 PB
9. Juan Carlos DE LA OSSA ESP 76 13:21.04 1152
10. Abderrahim GOUMRI MAR 76 13:23.67 1143
11. Abiyote ABATE ETH 80 13:23.81 1142
12. Alejandro SUÁREZ MEX 80 13:24.51 1140
13. Christian BELZ SUI 74 13:26.02 1135
14. Moukhled AL OUTAIBI KSA 76 13:38.92 1090
15. Jorge TORRES USA 80 13:43.37 1075

LRC Analysis

Quick Thought: It is amazing that, over 14 years later, Kipchoge and Bekele are still at the top of the sport

Kipchoge and Bekele have run their fair share of phenomenal times over the years, but almost as impressive as their performances is their longevity. Yes, Bekele has had some down periods as he’s struggled with injury. But the fact that, 14 years after they squared off in one of the greatest races of all time, Kipchoge and Bekele are headlining a marathon that many are hyping as one of the greatest of all time, is nothing short of remarkable. El Guerrouj, as great as he was, won his Olympic titles the following year and was out of the sport before his 30th birthday. Both Kipchoge (who we suspect is older than his official age of 32) and Bekele are now well into their 30s and still going strong.

Quick Thought: Let us know the next time you see six guys break 13:00 in a championship final

To this day, Kipchoge’s 12:52.79 remains not only the fastest time in World Championship history, but the fastest time in any championship race, period. In addition, no other global championship has ever seen six guys break 13:00 in the same race — heck, only three guys did it in all of 2017. Why was Paris 2003 so fast? A few possible reasons:

1) This field was deep — The 2017 World Championship final had only four guys in it who had ever broken 13. The 2003 final had five guys who had done it that year, including four under 12:53. That doesn’t guarantee a faster pace — the 2012 Olympic final had seven guys who had broken 13:00 that year and the winning time was only 13:41 — but it means that when someone makes it fast at the front, more guys can hold onto the pace.

2) There was a true stud with an incentive to make it fast — If someone pushed the pace like Bekele did for the first two miles of this race, then someone would break 13:00 in the World Championship final every year. But usually, the best guy in the field also has the best kick. So unless there’s someone of comparable ability — someone who also believes he is strong enough to lead a large chunk of the race and still win — you’re not usually going to get a sub-13:00 race. But in this case, Bekele knew he was one of the favorites but also knew his best chance of beating El Guerrouj was to force a fast pace. Thus the 4:05 opening 1600.

3) EPO — We’re not pointing fingers at anyone here, but to pretend this doesn’t pop into the heads of knowledgeable running fans as a possible reason would be a disservice. These are the facts: EPO was popular in the late 1990s and early 2000s. EPO makes you faster. EPO testing was not as robust in 2003 as it is in 2017. Add all that together and chances are good that one or two of the guys in this race were using. Just as a rising tide lifts all boats, if a few guys in the field are stronger because of EPO, that affects the entire race.

Quick Thought: The importance of positioning

Did you catch what Kipchoge did just before and after the bell? He wound up making two very important moves. In the first, halfway down the homestretch, Kipchoge found himself on the inside of lane 1 with Chebii in front of him and slightly to the right. Kipchoge, knowing he had to get around Chebii at some point, moved outside and passed him on the homestretch. Unless you’re making an inside pass on a turn, going by someone will almost always result in running some extra distance (either by moving sideways on the straight, as Kipchoge did here, or by running on the outside of the turn). But it’s easier to pass guys when they’re running 60-second 400 pace than when they’re running 53-second 400 pace, and you also don’t lose as much ground to the guy in front of you when the pace is slower. So Kipchoge made a good decision to pass Chebii earlier rather than later and avoided getting stuck behind Chebii, who wound up dying hard on the last lap.

Kipchoge also did a good job of finishing the move. He could have easily settled into third behind Bekele, and even as he hit the bell, he was level with Bekele. But Kipchoge used an extra burst early in the turn to move into second and position himself on El Guerrouj’s outside shoulder. He did wind up running more distance on the turn than El Guerrouj (though Kipchoge was still in lane 1), but he was also in better position than Bekele to kick once it got really fast over the final 300.

Kipchoge moving up when he did — and finishing the move rather than settling for third — may have been the difference in a race that was decided by just .04.

Quick Thought: El Guerrouj must have had horrible flashbacks to the 2000 Olympics after this one

Just check out the finishes of the two races. They’re basically the same, with Kipchoge playing the role of Noah Ngeny (the young Kenyan who pulled a big upset) — and Bekele playing the role of Bernard Lagat (the future stud competing in his first global championship on the track). Watch the final 100m of each race below and see for yourself.

2000 Olympics

2003 Worlds

Quick Thought: Who has the all-time edge, Eliud Kipchoge or Kenenisa Bekele?

Kipchoge and Bekele have faced each other 22 times over the course of their career, with Bekele holding a 15-7 advantage overall. The full breakdown of all 22 career matchups, sorted by surface, is below.

Track

Date Location Distance Bekele Kipchoge
6/27/2003 Oslo 5,000m 1st, 12:52.26 3rd, 12:52.61
8/31/2003 Paris (Worlds) 5,000m 3rd, 12:53.12 1st, 12:52.79
8/28/2004 Athens (Olympics) 5,000m 2nd, 13:14.59 3rd, 13:15.10
3/12/2006 Moscow (World Indoors) 3,000m 1st, 7:39.32 3rd, 7:42.58
7/14/2006 Rome 5,000m 1st, 12:51.44 6th, 12:54.94
7/28/2006 London 5,000m 2nd, 13:00.04 4th, 13:01.74
8/18/2006 Zurich 5,000m 1st, 12:48.25 3rd, 12:57.69
8/25/2006 Brussels 5,000m 1st, 12:48.09 2nd, 13:01.88
8/23/2008 Beijing (Olympics) 5,000m 1st, 12:57.82 2nd, 13:02.80
8/23/2009 Berlin (Worlds) 5,000m 1st, 13:17.09 5th, 13:18.95
9/12/2009 Thessaloniki 3,000m 1st, 8:03.79 9th, 8:07.26
9/16/2011 Brussels 10,000m 1st, 26:43.16 5th, 26:53.27
5/11/2012 Doha 3,000m 7th, 7:40.00 2nd, 7:31.40
7/6/2012 Paris 5,000m 9th, 12:55.79 8th, 12:55.34
Wins 11 3

Roads

Date Location Distance Bekele Kipchoge
10/12/2014 Chicago Marathon 4th, 2:05:51 1st, 2:04:11
4/24/2016 London Marathon 3rd, 2:06:36 1st, 2:03:05
Wins 0 2

Cross country

Date Location Distance Bekele Kipchoge
3/21/2004 Brussels (World XC) 12,000m 1st, 35:52 4th, 36:34
3/20/2005 Saint-Galmier (World XC) 12,000m 1st, 35:06 5th, 35:37
1/13/2007 Edinburgh 9,300m 1st, 28:14 3rd, 28:51
1/12/2008 Edinburgh 9,300m 1st, 27:42 3rd, 27:43
1/9/2010 Edinburgh 9,000m 4th, 29:17 3rd, 29:04
1/7/2012 Edinburgh 3,000m 11th, 9:42 3rd, 9:26
Wins 4 2

For more on Bekele vs. Kipchoge, check out this thread: MB Bekele vs Kipchoge head to head


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