As absurd as it seems, the man widely regarded as the best distance runner of all time is an outside bet to win this Sunday’s London Marathon. It’s a position Kenenisa Bekele has got used to – and one he plans to change.
In the end, every athlete has to face an interminable truth: no matter how good you are, there will always be someone younger, someone faster, and when your time comes, all the willpower in the world won’t make a blind bit of difference.
The top of the world is a hard place to get to, but an impossible place to stay.
Kenenisa Bekele knows as much. In the prime of his career, the Ethiopian was invincible, able to discard his rivals in any manner he chose – he could utilise his incredible endurance to burn them off early or else torch them with a 52-second last lap.
Three Olympic golds, 16 world titles spanning cross country and track, and world records over 5000m and 10,000m that remain untouchable – only one thing is missing for the guy who has it all.
“I want to achieve a marathon world record,” he says. “I don’t know where or when, but that would make me happy.”
Back in 2014, Bekele made the most anticipated of marathon debuts in Paris, and when he cruised to victory in 2:05:04 it appeared success would arrive just as easily on the roads as it had on the track. But six months later at the Chicago Marathon, he got a taste of what the ensuing years would bring when he finished a well-beaten fourth in 2:05:51, the race won by an old nemesis of his on the track, Eliud Kipchoge, in 2:04:11.
They have clashed twice since, and both times Kipchoge had the upper hand. At the London Marathon in 2016, the Kenyan won in 2:03:05, Bekele came home third a little over three minutes back, while in Berlin last year Kipchoge again reigned in 2:03:32. For the second time in his last three marathons, Bekele failed to finish.
“Out of seven marathons, only two or three were good,” says Bekele, who admits that his fellow athletes no longer see him as the force he once was.
“They underestimate me”
“During the track time, maybe people thought I was unbeatable and of course for that event, that distance, I was. I achieved many results and I had control over them, but when you come to marathon, it’s different. They don’t think I’m strong enough in the marathon. Every time maybe now they underestimate me.”
Of course, anyone who’s witnessed the marathons in which Bekele clicked would never question his ability. At the Berlin Marathon in 2016, he clocked the second fastest time in history when winning in 2:03:03, and last year in London, despite an injury-hit preparation, he ran 2:05:57 to finish second.
On Sunday he knows all eyes – and expectation – will be on Eliud Kipchoge, the Olympic champion who is steadily cementing his status as the greatest marathoner in history, but Bekele has a quiet confidence about his form, and a polite but powerful message to his rivals not to believe any rumours of his demise.
“If they underestimate me before the start, maybe after a result I’ll change their estimation,” he says.
His preparation has been smooth. Training under coach Mersha Ashrat, who has overseen his career for the last five years, Bekele reports that the injury problems that once plagued him are now behind him.
A father of three who has many thriving business interests in Ethiopia, there are certainly more demands on the 35-year-old’s time these days, but Bekele has become better at channelling his focus into his quest for a marathon world record.
“Sometimes I’m busy with the business, but usually it’s just three times a week that I do two to three hours of work,” he says.
His typical training load on the build-up to London has been in excess of 150km (93 miles) each week, though Bekele admits that part of his struggle in adjusting to the marathon has been the occasionally mundane nature of the work.
“It’s really different, marathon training,” he says. “It’s sometimes boring. But when you plan to achieve something, you need to do enough. I’m still motivated for my future plans and I’m enjoying my training.”
What fuels his fire these days is cementing his status as the greatest distance runner in history, and he knows only a marathon world record can truly settle that debate for good.
“I had two good [marathon] results and of course I’m not happy,” he says. “The achievement was not balancing [with the successes on the track]. Of course it was because of injury and now my injury is healed so I prepared well for this race.
“If I could break the marathon record, it will be so special.”
But Sunday’s forecast is unlikely to make such an attempt realistic, with the event set to take place in the highest temperatures in the race’s history.
In many ways, of course, Bekele has nothing left to prove. His career is as decorated as it gets, and through it all he’s been grateful for the opportunities handed his way.
“I have visited many countries, met different people, different languages,” he says. “Fame, money – all these things are because of running.”
From an early age, he’s been well aware of his genetic gift, and Bekele made that clear at the pre-race press conference when the various men’s contenders were asked what the most important technology was for success in running.
As Kipchoge, Guye Adola and Daniel Wanjiru elaborated with various opinions, Bekele answered with one word: “talent.”
But what result would allow him to leave London with a smile on his face, content that despite all his achievements, the graft is still worthwhile?
“A good time, top three,” he says.
No matter how it goes, Bekele has no plans to depart the sport anytime soon.
“Ninety percent of my motivation now is to do the marathon world record. In my life, my career, I want to have more success. I really am hungry for that.”
Words: Cathal Dennehy
Photography: Dan Vernon