Can Kenenisa Bekele Break the Marathon World Record In Berlin? “He’s In Perfect Shape Now….I Think So,” Says His Coach

By Jonathan Gault
September 23, 2021

Kenenisa Bekele is running the Berlin Marathon on Sunday.

Bekele is 39 years old. He hasn’t run a marathon in two years. He hasn’t run any race, period, in 18 months. He has racked up so many DNF’s and DNS’s over the last seven years that it is hard to keep track.

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He is also the greatest distance runner of all time. And Berlin is the site of some of his greatest triumphs. He won the 5k/10k double there at the 2009 Worlds. In 2016, snubbed by the Ethiopian Olympic selectors, he showed up to the Berlin Marathon and won in 2:03:03, missing the world record by six seconds. Three years later, when many believed his career was over, he came even closer, his 2:01:41 winning time just two seconds off Eliud Kipchoge‘s world record.

We watch sports because they’re unpredictable, and because they present an opportunity to witness greatness. And that’s why I will wake up at 4 a.m. on Sunday to watch Bekele live in Berlin (Editor’s note: The race starts at 3:15 am ET but Jonathan is ok with missing the first 45 minutes). His longtime agent Jos Hermens sums it up best.

“It’s Kenenisa Bekele,” Hermens says. “So we never know.”

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Two years ago, Bekele spent two months of his Berlin buildup in Nijmegen, the headquarters of Hermens’ Global Sports Communication agency in the Netherlands, where he received dietary guidance to lose weight and hands-on treatment from ace physiotherapist Peter Eemers. Bekele did the same thing in 2021, though his stay in the Netherlands was slightly shorter (roughly five to six weeks) before returning to Addis Ababa for the final two months of his Berlin buildup.

Hermens says that everything has gone “okay,” though the buildup was a little shorter than ideal. That is one of the reasons why Bekele did not run any sort of tuneup race this year.

“We needed all the time to get him fit for Berlin,” Hermens says. “We had no time to do a half marathon. How much do you taper? How much do you train afterwards? The traveling. There weren’t [many races] going on anyway.”

Kipchoge’s 2:01:39 world record is the obvious goal that has motivated Bekele since his move to the marathon in 2014. But Hermens did not want to make any outlandish predictions. He is taking a cautious approach to Berlin, as it has been a difficult last 12 months for Bekele. He was forced to withdraw from last year’s London Marathon at the last minute due to a calf injury sustained in his final hard session, and then got COVID during the summer of 2021. Hermens just wants to make sure his client gets the opportunity to do what he loves to do on Sunday: race.

“He’s fit, he’s ready to run fast,” Hermens says. “How fast, we have to see on Sunday — conditions, competition, everything. Personally, I’m happy he’s there and he’s fit and healthy at the starting line. At the moment, he’s disciplined and he’s very anxious to still show something the next coming years, knowing that he’s getting older. I like his attitude at the moment, it’s good.”

***

Hermens may be downplaying expectations, but in Ethiopia, the hype is building. On Thursday, Ethiopian photographer Aman Ahmed quoted Bekele’s coach Haji Adilo as saying that Bekele would break the world record in Berlin. Then Ethiopian running expert Michael Crawley, author of the excellent Out of Thin Air, reported similarly optimistic sentiments.

So I reached out to Adilo myself earlier today, and he confirmed that Bekele is very fit.

“He’s in perfect shape now,” Adilo says. “His progress is very good.”

How does his shape compare to before Berlin in 2019?

“It’s the same as 2019,” Adilo says. “Little bit…”

Bekele barely missed the WR in his last trip to Berlin (SCC EVENTS/Norbert Wilhelmi)

He pauses. Here it is. I expect Adilo to say “little bit worse” or that some last-minute injury or other issue has popped up.

“It’s same,” he continues. “Little bit…better now, I think.”

Just a reminder: 2019 Bekele ran 2:01:41 in Berlin.

Adilo goes on to say that Bekele’s health is “very good,” that his concentration is better than it was ahead of Berlin two years ago. He knows how close he was to the world record and doesn’t want to leave anything to chance this time around. The goal, Adilo tells me, is the world record.

Do you think that’s possible?

“Ahhhhhhh,” Adilo says, drawing out the suspense as long as possible. “Ah ah ah ah ah ah. I think so.”

***

So there you have it, two perspectives on Bekele ahead of Sunday’s race. The stats say that fast Bekele marathons are a rare occurrence these days. Since the start of 2017, Bekele has signed up for eight of them, scratched from two of them, dropped out of three of them, and finished three of them. Of those three finishes, one was unimpressive (2:08:53 for 6th at 2018 London), one was good (2:05:57 for 2nd at 2017 London), and one was otherworldly (2:01:41 win at 2019 Berlin). There are plenty of reasons to doubt him.

Yet there are reasons to believe, too. If what Adilo says about Bekele is true. If Bekele can summon another Lazarus-like effort in Berlin, as he did in 2016 and again in 2019. And if the weather — with a high of 75, it will be on the warmer side in Berlin — can cooperate on Sunday.

You can pick your side, pessimist or optimist, but the truth is, no one knows how Sunday is going to go. Not even Bekele. That is why we watch.

“You don’t know how you’re going to feel after 30k,” Hermens says. “That’s the beauty of racing, especially marathon running.”


What do you think of Bekele’s chances in Berlin? Tell us on our world-famous fan forum / messageboard: MB: Set your alarm clocks now. Bekele’s coach: “He’s in perfect shape now….I think [he can break the WR].”

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