In one of the greatest comebacks in athletics history, 37 year-old Kenenisa Bekele of Ethiopia won today’s BMW Berlin Marathon in 2:01:41, just two seconds off of Eliud Kipchoge’s one year-old world record. Bekele, a three-time Olympic gold medalist who still holds the 10,000m world record set 14 years ago, overcame a bad patch in the race’s second half to win by 68 seconds over compatriot Birhanu Legese. Both men represent Nike and the NN Running Team.
Bekele has struggled with knee and hamstring problems over the last several years, and hadn’t finished a marathon since April, 2018, when he took sixth place at the Virgin Money London Marathon in 2:08:53. Since then he has only completed one race, and dropped out of last October’s TCS Amsterdam Marathon at 41 kilometers. Many had concluded that his career was over, and that today’s race in Berlin might be his last.
Indeed, after the halfway split was passed in 1:01:05, Bekele went from looking both strong and confident to vulnerable. Legese zoomed through the 31st kilometer in 2:48 with another Ethiopian, Sisay Lemma, and Bekele quickly fell about 50 meters behind. He began to look down, and his stride was heavy. But, he said later than he never felt like giving up.
Battling Back to a Negative Split
“In marathon you never feel losing,” Bekele said in his post-race television interview. “People in front of you, you never know what happens to them.”
By the 35-kilometer checkpoint, Bekele was only 13 seconds behind Legese and was clearly gaining on him. He passed Lemma to take over second place and was gunning for the leader.
“You never give up,” Bekele said
Bekele ran the 38th kilometer in 2:52, passed Legese and began to focus on the clock. He was tantalizingly close to Kipchoge’s world record schedule from last year, but would have to run a negative split off of such a fast first half, a seemingly impossible feat considering that his training for the race was, he admitted, less than perfect.
“My preparation was not 100% because of injury,” Bekele said. “My preparation was a little bit short for marathon, especially for record.”
Astonishingly, Bekele covered the second half in 1:00:36. He sprinted furiously through the Brandenburg Gate on his way to one one of the most majestic finish lines in all of road running.
“Yes, it was the best race,” he said when asked if today’s performance was the best of his career. “I’m sorry, just a few seconds I missed the world record.”
Ethiopian Dominance in Women’s Race as Well
In the women’s race, three-time champion Gladys Cherono dropped out at 32 kilometers and was never a factor in the race. Instead a foursome of three Ethiopians (Ashete Bekere, Helen Tola and Mare Dibaba) and one Kenyan (Sally Chepyego) led the race through halfway in 1:10:20. They remained together through the 35-kilometer checkpoint (1:56:36), after which Chepyego and Tola were dropped. Bekere, another Nike/NN Running Team athlete who is coached by Getaneh Tessema, led with Dibaba shadowing her every stride.
At 40 kilometers (2:13:09), Bekere and Dibaba were still locked together, until Dibaba made a big surge to try to drop her taller rival. Bekere quickly responded, got on Dibaba’s heels and gathered herself for one final push to the line. Bekere waited until after the Brandenburg Gate to start her sprint, and Dibaba had no answer. They finished 1-2 in 2:20:14 and 2:20:21, respectively.
“Yes, I expected to win today, especially after the 35th kilometer,” Bekere said in her post-race television interview through a translator. “I’m disciplined and hard-working.”
Chepyego hung on for third place in 2:21:06, a big personal best, and Tola was fourth in 2:21:06, just five seconds off of her PR.
Back in fifth place, American Sara Hall lowered her career best time by some four minutes, clocking 2:22:16, running halves of 1:11:17 and 1:10:59. That performance makes her the sixth-fastest American of all-time behind only Deena Kastor, Jordan Hasay, Shalane Flanagan, Joan Samuelson, and Amy Cragg.
“I had a lot of fun out there in the race today, and I finally feel like I’m getting closer to my potential in the event,” Hall told Race Results Weekly in a text message just after the race. “It’s the first time I’ve negative split a marathon and the most under control I’ve felt.”
Sally Kipyego also set a personal best, finishing seventh in 2:25:10.
By David Monti, @d9monti. (c) 2019 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved. Used with permission.