Berlin Marathon Pits the Legend Against His Heirs
"Maybe I will show them the way," Bekele trash-talks at Berlin's press conference, but can the 37-year-old hold off a pack of young Ethiopian countrymen?
The 2019 Berlin Marathon continues to be as enigmatic as Sunday’s weather forecast, which progressed today from “changeable” to “somewhat uncertain.” In the men’s field, how do you pick among three very fast but little known Ethiopians, all described by their manager as “in great shape?” How to assess the prospects of a fading demi-god, a thrilling Kenyan debutant, and a World and Olympic medallist best known for a gesture of political protest ?
The men’s front pack will be paced, “probably 61:30 at halfway,” said race director Mark Milde today. But who will be there?
Leul Gebrselassie (26), Sisay Lemma (28), and Birhanu Legese (25) seem likely. They collected their impressive PRs, as so many do, at the super-fast Dubai Marathon, where they placed second, fifth, and sixth in 2018, all packed together, 2:04:02 to 2:04:15. Gebrselassie (no relation to Haile) also won the Valencia Marathon in 2018, Lemma took fourth in Berlin in 2016, and Legese is the 2019 Tokyo champion. All three said they were well prepared, with “training focused only on Berlin for five months,” Legese said. “They are all in great shape and ready for 2:03,” manager Jos Hermens added privately.
More celebrated, but less likely to win or podium, is the legendary Kenenisa Bekele (37). He is arguably the greatest distance runner the world has ever known, more distinguished even than Haile Gebrselassie or Eliud Kipchoge across the whole range of track, cross-country, and road. Short bio: World record holder for 5000m and 10,000m (for fifteen years so far), three Olympic and four World Championship gold medals at those distances; eleven gold medals over six years at the World Cross-Country Championships (he coincided with the long course/short course era and handily won both); and a marathon PR of 2:03:03 here at Berlin in 2016 that missed being a world record by six seconds and still ranks him as fourth fastest all time.
Since then, the once silky-smooth Bekele has dropped out of more marathons than he has finished, with a sixth in London in 2018 (2:08:53) his only mark in two years. Defying dismissal as aging and injury-prone, he injected some roguish aggression into today’s media conference, rebuffing suggestions that he will provide helpful advice for the younger Ethiopians.
“Maybe I will show them the way. We are competitive with each other. I am happy with my preparation, and I am ready to show something,” Bekele said, glossing over the earlier confession that he has had only three months’ training since treatment for a serious injury.
Feyisa Lilesa, 29, the fifth notable Ethiopian in the field, caught the cameras’ attention as he ran in to take Olympic silver in 2016, when he had the presence of mind at the marathon finish line to make a political gesture (arms crossed, fists clenched, making a letter O) on behalf of his repressed Oromo people. After two years in hiding from repercussions in the USA, he is now back home under a more benign government. His career has always been uneven, but includes a World Championships bronze medal in 2011, a win at Tokyo in 2016, and podium places at Berlin (third, 2015) and Chicago (second, 2012).
Ethiopian runner Feyisa Lilesa lived in exile for 2 years after he made this gesture at the Olympics to draw attention to anti-government protests.
He’s just been honored by the new Prime Minister after sweeping human rights and democratic reforms. pic.twitter.com/HjbTGol77L
— AJ+ (@ajplus) April 10, 2019
There’s an unusually strong entry from Asia, no doubt looking toward the Tokyo Olympics next year. Japan, China, and Korea all have elite squads, with Japan’s Kenta Murayama the fastest on 2:09:50; and there is even a 2:16 Mongolian called Gantulga Dambadarjaa. The Berlin race’s very thorough statistical lists show that the Mongolian record, 2:12:42, was set on this record-friendly course in 2012, among national marks over the years for twenty-seven countries, from Kenya to Peru.
But the real wild card is Abel Kipchumba. A 25-year-old Kenyan with fearsome road race credentials (41:55 15K, 59:29 half-marathon), this is his first marathon. He will have some support from fellow-Kenyans Felix Kandie (2:06:03) and Jonathan Korir (2:06:51). In the Berlin men’s race, a miraculous Kipchumba debut looks the only way to stop this being Ethiopia’s year.
@WMMajors & #marathon debut for Abel Kipchumba – 2019 #BerlinMarathon! #TeamAdidas #RunCzech Racing @adidasrunning @RunCzech @one4onesports pic.twitter.com/F85yq5zBxe
— Ikaika Sports (@IkaikaSports) August 8, 2019
Meanwhile, a little back in the field, US runners Matt Llano (2:12:28 PR) and Haron Lagat (debut), will receive the full support this Berlin marathon is providing for aspirants to the Olympic qualifying time of 2:11:30, including mobile time clocks, and five pacers designated to help those runners on 2:10 to 2:11. Lagat, 36, making his marathon debut, is at last eligible to run for USA. A full-time resident since 2004, he has served in the Army as a full citizen since 2016, but for two years fell victim to an arbitrary IAAF embargo on all transfers of allegiance. The 2020 Olympics are likely to be his last chance to run for USA.
Haron Lagat has been caught in the web of the IAAF freeze on transfer of allegiance.https://t.co/5uTZSEG6Pt
— FloTrack (@FloTrack) February 21, 2018
Roger Robinson is the author of When Running Made History which has won international acclaim as one of the best books about running ever.