Bekele sets his sights on Berlin history

The history of the city of Berlin is never far from mind on marathon weekend.

When the masses stream through the Brandenburg Gate on the last Sunday in September, it’s a reminder of the unifying force that pulled a once divided people – partitioned either side of the great monument for decades – back together.

It’s appropriate, perhaps, that the German capital will stage the first Abbott World Marathon Major to welcome the masses back to the roads since before the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

A race reacquainted with its people in a city that knows a thing or two about the power of unity.

When the gun fires on Strasse des 17. Juni this Sunday, it will have been 693 days since the 2019 TCS New York City Marathon, the last time an AbbottWMM race took place with a mass field.

The tip of the spear, of course, will be the elite athlete cast assembled for this event. The red-hot favourite in the men’s field must surely be the great Kenenisa Bekele.

His advancing years have prompted many to question whether the 39-year-old can still operate at the very highest level of the sport. He silenced those doubts on these streets in 2019 when he clocked the second fastest time in history, falling two seconds short of Eliud Kipchoge’s 2:01:39 world record.

A battle royal between the pair was slated for London in 2020 until injury intervened on Bekele’s behalf. The frustration continued when he was overlooked for Olympic selection this year, and watched on as all three men who wore the Ethiopian vest in his place failed to finish in the heat of Sapporo.

Now he returns to Berlin hoping to prove that omission was a mistake, and to find out if he can reproduce the kind of performance that so nearly toppled Kipchoge’s history-making mark.

“I am very happy to come back again,” he told the media on Friday. “It has been a long time after COVID, almost two years, so I’m very happy to be here. It’s been a really tough time, for me and everybody. I was affected with COVID nine months ago and it was tough time. I am very sorry for everybody.”

After such a long and unexpected hiatus at this stage of his career, Bekele knows time is not on his side to try and take Kipchoge’s record from him, but he still bristles at the notion that his own body clock will deny him.

“From my side, I’m not worried about my age. I have some years to do better, don’t worry. I know many of my fans worry about my age, but I have enough time to accomplish my goal.”

Having come so close two years ago, the Olympic 10,000m and 5,000m gold medallist in 2008 also claimed he has the advantage of knowing exactly how it will feel to run at the kind of pace required to threaten the record this weekend.

He’ll have countryman Guye Adola for company, who came second here to Kipchoge in 2017, clocking 2:03:36.

“I was not sure two years ago, I just came to try for my personal best, so to follow the world record pace – I had a little bit of fear because I had not run at that pace before. This time, I’m fully confident, I know how this pace feels and I will try my best.”

In a season where all Majors barring Tokyo will take place in a seven-week period, Bekele also plans to run the final act of the season in New York City.

It will be his first attempt at the famously tough course and it would be no surprise to see someone of Bekele’s cross-country pedigree succeed over the rises and falls of the Big Apple’s five boroughs. The inevitable question will be how he recovers from Sunday.

“Both races will need different strategies,” he said. “In Berlin, of course, it’s to try for a personal best or the world record, and in New York the course is different. In two years I had no races, so I want to use this chance to do two races in seven weeks. It will be OK.”

Should he achieve an improbable couplet of victories in such a short time frame, it would go down as one of the finest feats in modern-day distance running and put him in the box seat for the Series XIII title.

Today’s top 26.2-milers are like heavyweight boxers, appearing once or twice a year only, with long periods of rest and rejuvenation before announcing where they will next exhibit their skills.

Pulling off two top-drawer displays just a few weekends apart simply hasn’t been done before.

But Kenenisa Bekele has been in that kind of business lately, showing everyone he can do what they think is beyond him.

Read our women's elite race preview here.