Now That Kipchoge vs Bekele Is Set, The Question Is – Are They In Shape?

By Jonathan Gault
August 10, 2020

Jos Hermens knows the course for the 2020 London Marathon will be fast. Last year, when Hermens’ Global Sports Communication agency was searching for somewhere for Eliud Kipchoge to make his attempt on the two-hour barrier, they found a loop of just over a mile in St. James’s Park — the Queen’s front yard, just steps from Buckingham Palace. It was fast and flat, and it was almost the site for the INEOS 1:59 Challenge. Instead, that loop will be used for this year’s London Marathon.

 “If we would have done [the INEOS 1:59 Challenge in] London, this would have been the lap,” Hermens told last Friday. “The weather was too insecure, that’s how we ended up in Vienna.”

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Hermens goes on to say “it’s a very good lap” and that it should be faster than the regular London Marathon course. Faster, perhaps, even than Berlin. But he stops short of predicting any sort of record, a note of caution in his voice.

“We have to see the shape of the athletes,” Hermens says.

Kipchoge and Bekele before the 2017 Berlin Marathon

So far, only two men have been announced for this strangest of London Marathons (more will certainly be added), which is to be staged on October 4. There is Kipchoge, 35, the marathon world record holder, reigning Olympic marathon champion and the man regarded by most as the greatest marathoner ever. And there is Kenenisa Bekele, 38, the three-time Olympic champion on the track, the 11-time World Cross Country champion, the world record holder at 5,000 and 10,000 meters, and the man regarded by many as the greatest distance runner in history.

In their four previous marathon encounters, Bekele has not lived up to his end of the deal. When they first met, in Chicago in 2014, Kipchoge won handily in 2:04:11 to Bekele’s 2:05:51. That remains the closest Bekele has come to defeating Kipchoge over 26.2 miles — though this is not entirely Bekele’s fault, considering nobody has beaten Kipchoge in a marathon since 2013.

But when the two men were announced as part of the original 2020 London field in January, optimism flooded the running world. Finally, the time seemed right for a marathon between both legends at peak fitness. Kipchoge was coming off his mind-blowing 1:59:40 effort over 26.2 miles in Vienna; Bekele, meanwhile, had just run the finest marathon of his career, a 2:01:41 victory in Berlin in which he missed Kipchoge’s official world record by just two seconds.

Even in January, however, the idea of a true clash of the titans relied on more than a little hope. Kipchoge’s unprecedented consistency has inured us to the fact that so many things have to go right for an athlete to deliver a top marathon performance — a strong buildup, good injury luck, favorable race-day conditions, and the avoidance of any mid-race calamities or fueling issues. And that is under normal circumstances. Add in a global pandemic, and who knows what to expect on October 4?

Hermens, whose agency represents both Kipchoge and Bekele, would have a better idea than most. He reports that Bekele scaled back his training during the early stages of the pandemic but did not take any time completely off. That’s the good news. The bad news: Hermens admits Bekele has been “struggling.” First due to the coronavirus-enforced shutdown, and more recently due to civil unrest in Ethiopia, where the killing of singer Hachalu Hundessa on June 29 sparked ethnic tensions and the deaths of hundreds of Ethiopians.

“It has not been ideal,” Hermens says of Bekele’s preparation. “But this is Kenenisa. It was not ideal before Berlin last year and he missed the [world record] by two seconds.”

Hermens invited Bekele to train in the Netherlands — last year, a two-month stint in Nijmegen prior to Berlin proved key — but this time Bekele turned him down. Bekele, already a germophobe before the pandemic, did not want to travel.

“He’s very afraid for corona, very afraid,” Hermens says.

Bekele signaled his return with an incredible 2:01:41 victory in Berlin last fall (Photo via NNRunning Team)

Bekele’s talent is otherworldly, but motivation has been a recurring question during his marathon career. Hermens says motivation isn’t an issue this time, however. He notes that Bekele will gladly take to the treadmill should circumstances dictate he can’t train outside — “he has done a lot of alternative training — he’s a great treadmill runner.” The work, Hermens believes, will get done.

But projecting any athlete’s fitness two months from race day is a fool’s errand, anyway. Even close to races, Hermens admits he doesn’t always know what to expect.

“[Bekele] is many times secretive about the times he runs for the long runs, even last year for Berlin,” Hermens says.

And as for London?

“He’s not that ready [right now], but he doesn’t have to be ready yet,” Hermens says. “It will be, again, a race against the clock [to get fit]. But we saw what happened last year. I think it will be a wonderful race.”

There are also questions, albeit smaller ones, about Kipchoge’s preparation. His beloved training camp in Kaptagat was shuttered for months due to COVID-19, and Hermens says his group only recently resumed working out together on the track.

“Eliud has not been 100%,” Hermens says. “He has not been able to train in the group for a long time.”

Yet if there has been one given in the world of marathoning over the past eight years, it’s that Eliud Kipchoge will be fit when he shows up on the start line of a marathon. COVID-related interruptions could mean that he might not be at his absolute best. But many athletes have shown it’s still possible to run fast in 2020. With nearly two more months of training, a fast course awaiting him, and Nike supershoes on his feet, who would rule out another 2:01 in London? That, perhaps, is optimistic. Though with Kipchoge, you never know.

A certain amount of certainty is required to stage a marathon, which is one of the many reasons the coronavirus has been so difficult on race organizers. Thursday’s announcement provided the requisite dosage: a date, a course, and a firm commitment from the two fastest marathoners in history. Now, the countdown begins in earnest. The race to the race has begun.

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