Why Kenenisa Bekele Is Running the Berlin AND New York City Marathons This Fall

By Jonathan Gault
August 19, 2021

When the TCS New York City Marathon announced the professional field this morning for this year’s race on November 7, one name stood out beyond all others.

(Related: LRC The 2021 NYC Marathon Fields Are Set. Here Are the Biggest Storylines.)

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Kenenisa Bekele.

Bekele? Isn’t he already running Berlin on September 26? (Yes, he is.) A 39-year-old who has DNF’d or scratched three of his last four marathons is now going to run two in six weeks?

Whether or not Bekele actually makes it to the start line in Staten Island, you can’t help but get excited about idea of the greatest distance runner of all time competing in the United States for the first time since 2014 (he finished 4th that year in Chicago). But why two races this fall? Is this just a naked cash grab by a man on the brink or retirement?

Bekele’s agent, Jos Hermens, says no.

Bekele was supposed to run London last year but has not finished a marathon in two years (Photo: Bob Martin for London Marathon Events)

“To be honest, he has not even asked about the money,” Hermens says, adding that, with races looking to trim costs following the COVID year of 2020, appearance fees are around half of what they would be in a normal year.

According to Hermens, there are three things that went into Bekele’s decision to run NYC. The first is that Bekele does best with short-term goals. 

“If he has to race in six months ahead, that’s an eternity,” Hermens says. “For him, it’s helpful to have a goal short-term.”

Hermens believes that running New York helps Bekele in two ways. First, it gives him another target to shoot for quickly after Berlin. And, because NYC is the last of the WMMs in 2021, it means the gap to the spring season is shorter. He’s chopping down that “eternity” between Berlin and a spring marathon into a more manageable chunk.

Second, Hermens believes the rhythm-breaking NYC course, with its bridges and finish in Central Park, suits Bekele, the greatest cross country runner of all time.

Third, the shoes. The super-cushioned Nike Vaporflys and their ilk don’t just make runners faster; they allow athletes to recover better from hard efforts.

“In the old days, you saw people would struggle to get on the podium after a marathon,” Hermens says. “Haile [Gebrselassie] was a cripple for a few days. Now the athletes are more relaxed and recover better. A Monday run after the marathon, you see everybody in better shape than the old days.”

Bekele at his best: running 2:01:41 to win Berlin in 2019 (Photo via NNRunning Team)

Is Bekele in shape to do damage this fall? We’ll see. He has finished just one marathon in the last three years, but that marathon was spectacular, a 2:01:41 victory in Berlin in 2019 that made him the second-fastest man in history, behind Eliud Kipchoge. Hermens says he believes Bekele would have won London last year had he not withdrawn after injuring himself in his final training session, but that sort of thing is a risk now at Bekele’s advanced age. He has a nagging ankle injury — among issues — that is always liable to flare up. Hermens says it is difficult to know what to expect from Bekele this fall.

“I didn’t expect that [2:01:41] two years ago. He’s a great athlete and a good man. And I think right now he’s very focused. He gave away [a lot of] his business [responsibilities] to other people.”

Hermens says the best analogy is a vintage car. Bekele may have some miles on him, but he can still tear down the roads when his body isn’t falling apart.

“With that man, with that quality, anything is possible,” Hermens says. “…The engine is still fantastic. The lungs and the heart are still Ferrari. The outside, it’s difficult to keep that up at the same level.”

Talk about Bekele’s NYC debut on our world-famous fan forum / messageboard:

Bekele running Berlin AND NYC?

More: The 2021 NYC Marathon Fields Are Set. Here Are the Biggest Storylines.   Kibiwott Kandie is making his major marathon debut and Peres Jepchirchir is chasing history. Plus how do the 2021 NYC, Boston and Chicago fields stack up against each other? *MB: Bekele running Berlin AND NYC?

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