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Berlin Marathon—A Year After the Fastest Marathon Ever—Goes for Power to the People

But tune in for an intriguing women's race and some new names going for podium glory.

When you have hosted the greatest marathon in history, what’s next? That’s the question Berlin Marathon race director Mark Milde addressed today, a year after Berlin saw Eliud Kipchoge’s 2:01:39, and Gladys Cherono’s women’s course record of 2:18:11, together making up the world’s fastest ever combined winning time, 4:19:50.

“This year is for the main field, as well as the big-star runners. We want to help runners from many countries achieve the Olympic Qualifying time. Also, more than one hundred runners of all speeds are here to complete their sixth World Marathon Major, a memorable day for them.  And we have made technical changes that enable us to increase entries by three thousand, to 46,983, while also becoming more sustainable by recycling the stuff we use,” Milde said.

It was refreshing to hear a big marathon director focus on the people runners before interviewing his media celebrities, and talk of recruiting the borderline national-class runners who are often ignored by major marathons.

Chasing the Olympic Standard

That record field, putting Berlin second to New York in size among all marathons, includes 5,432 Americans, a total second only to Germany. That’s a good-sized American marathon. Among those chasing the Olympic Qualifier will be four American women, Sara Hall, Sally Kipyego, Adriana Nelson, and Samantha Bluske, plus Krista DuChene, the Canadian master, 42, who is famed for her age-defying third place at Boston in the 2018 storm.

Milde was forthright about the effects of staging an elite major marathon in the same week as the World Championship in Doha (women’s marathon Friday September 27, men’s Saturday October 5).

“Many top runners will of course choose to represent their countries in Doha. But I still believe the women’s course record will be under pressure,” Milde said. Absentees for other reasons are last year’s world record breaker Kipchoge, preparing for his staged sub-2 hours attempt on October 12, and the biggest star of the last twelve months, Brigit Kosgei (won Chicago last October, and London in April, world half-marathon record in September), who has committed to defend her Chicago title next month.

For those of us who prefer races to records, this Berlin in prospect still makes the mouth water.

2019 BMW Berlin Marathon Press Conference
photo: courtesy BMW Berlin Marathon

Any Woman’s Race

The women’s race is as hard to foresee as Sunday’s weather, which today was officially forecast as “changeable,” “unpredictable,” and “50/50.” Today, three elite women met the media, the tip of a deep field. How do you pick between the marathon-hardened Kenyan Gladys Cherono, 37, sixth fastest in history, three times winner here in Berlin, and Ethiopian Meseret Defar, 35, track super-star, with a houseful of Olympic and World Championship 5,000m gold medals and world record plaques, but scanty marathon experience?

The greatest marathoners these days tend to split between those who have transitioned from track, like Kipchoge, Paula Radcliffe, or Deena Kastor, and those who went straight to the roads, like Mary Keitany, Des Linden, or Wilson Kipsang. Defar’s second marathon (Nagoya, March 2019, 2:23:33) was a four-minute improvement on her first. She is an intriguing late addition to this field.

How will the mercurial Mare Dibaba (Ethiopia) perform against those two? She has a world championship marathon gold medal (2015) and an Olympic bronze (2016), but she has off days, and her last outing was a dismal eleventh in Frankfurt a year ago.

Patience on the Long Road

All three talked of “very good training” and likely PRs, but runners at media conferences always do.

There was more to learn from their responses about how they sustain such long careers.

“Discipline. Hard work. Mental strong,” said Cherono emphatically.

Meseret Defar
Meseret Defar / photo: 101 Degrees West

Defar commented with feeling on the marathon’s demands by comparison with track.

“Track is fun, easy for me, but marathon training is long, you must be patient for such long work.”

Asked whether having a four-year-old child with her in Berlin affects her running, Defar corrected it with motherly promptness to “five years old.”

“Yes, when you give birth, and raise a child, you have a lot of pressure. It makes you more strong. I have had some struggles with injury, but I chose Berlin because it is flat and fast, and I want a fast time, a PR, and soon I want sub-2:20,” she said, the competitive athlete rising to the surface.

The race is not only about those three. As well as Cherono (2:18:11) and Dibaba (2:19:52, twice), there are four other sub-2:22 runners, all Ethiopian – Yebrgual Melese (2:19:36), Haftamnesh Tesfay (2:20:13), Helen Tola (2:21:01), and Ashefe Bekere (2:21:14). Other than Tola, their performances mostly come from Dubai, which is not always reliable as a predictor. Tola is the youngest at 24, underlining again that the marathon is mostly for the mature.

Soo… Endlich wieder da. Nach eine 30Stunden lange Reise bin ich seit gestern im Berlin. Ich bin gestern abend 50min…

Posted by Melat Yisak Kejeta on Thursday, September 26, 2019

New Home-Town Hero

The Germans are excited about the debut marathon of a new name and a new German. Last April, the unknown Melat Kejeta, born in Ethiopia, granted German citizenship in March 2019, astonishingly won the Berlin Half-Marathon, an elite race on some of this same course. She has since improved her half-marathon to a truly world-class 66:09, and on stage today she at first gave her target for Sunday as 2:25, then adjusted it to 2:22, after some consultation with her German coach. That’s Winfried Aufenanger, formerly national marathon coach, who recently had Kejeta on altitude training in Kaplagat, Kenya. The Germans do things well.

Her name seems to be pronounced “Kye-ya” in case you follow Sunday’s race on stream (NBCSN starting at 3:00 a.m.). Kejeta is a mother, and Friday September 27this her twenty-seventh birthday.  Not much more is known about her. But it’s possible she is on the way to becoming the German Meb Keflezighi.

Stay tuned for the men’s race preview tomorrow.

Roger Robinson is the author of When Running Made History which has won international acclaim as one of the best books about running ever.