Along with the sad announcement last week that the London Marathon would not hold a mass-participation race this fall either, we got the good news that they will hold an elite-only race on the rescheduled race date of October 4. And not just any elite race but one where we’ll finally get to see the head-to-head showdown that was promised last spring between the two fastest marathoners of our time — arguably the two greatest distance runners of all time — Eliud Kipchoge and Kenenisa Bekele.
Here’s the set-up: Last fall in Berlin, Bekele — who has won 21 world titles and broken 6 track world records — ran the marathon we’ve been expecting from him, cruising to a 2:01:41. Bekele’s mark was just two seconds shy of the world record 2:01:39, set a year earlier on the same course by Kipchoge — the Olympic Marathon champion who has won 10 consecutive major marathons. Two weeks later, Kipchoge wowed the world with his exhibition-only, yet still barrier-breaking 1:59:40 run in Vienna.
These two greats have competed against each other since the early 2000’s, Bekele usually coming out on top on the track (and always in cross country, where he was undisputed king), while Kipchoge has risen to undisputed dominance in the marathon. In a year where we’re starved for any stale crumb of competition in the sport, to see these two go head to head is like being fed caviar.
PR: How long have the runners known that the race would happen so they could train?
Hermens: They were hoping and expecting, and the organizers were always positive — but, at the moment, with the pandemic, you never know. So, now it is more certain. They have been training, probably not perfect, not as usually. For a long time, there was not allowed training groups, no staying together… so it is not the ideal preparation, for both of them. But both have been training, maybe not as long a full preparation as usual.
PR: Last year you told us how Bekele came to the Netherlands to train before Berlin and had the help of a PT and nutritionist as well as coaching.
Hermens: That’s why it’s not ideal: We have a whole team, but nobody could go there, and he couldn’t go out. So we’ve had to be very flexible and very creative. So, indoor training, treadmill training, gym — alternative training. Especially for the long time during the lockdown. And they still have kind of a lockdown in both countries, so it has not been ideal
But also, we have still seven weeks, so it’s not negative, but not ideal. There has been some good training. We’ll have to see, for the last seven weeks, what happens.
PR: Is it fair to say we shouldn’t expect 2 hours?
Hermens: I don’t know. It’s difficult to say now, we’ll have to see the last few weeks, what happens in the tests, the training, how it goes. Both guys have trained for many years — they are like running machines. It is always difficult to judge. Sometimes you’ll be OK with a shorter preparation. And, we’re not talking 2 hours, more about 2:01:39 — that’s a minute and half difference.
PR: We know that the race will be held on a 2K loop course in St. James Park, do you know any more about the field?
Hermens: Like always, it will be a strong field. There will be quite a few athletes who want to qualify. British guys, Europeans. I think there will be two groups: a 2:10 group, quite a big group; then, the guys in the front—around 10 athletes. It will be a real race with good other runners — and there are going to be pacers.
PR: We’ve watched these two since 2001, 2002. I remember at World Cross Country in 2004, when Bekele was dominant [he won both long and short courses from 2002–2006], you told me he wanted everything — including the marathon. Kipchoge was fourth in that race but had beaten Bekele in the 5,000m at the World Championships in 2003. In the ensuing years [as Bekele excelled in cross and track but struggled to run at the same level in the marathon, and Kipchoge has dominated the marathon] have their career paths surprised you?
Hermens: Eliud was always a very good athlete, but the marathon distance is obviously his distance. He’s a typical marathon runner, with very good speed obviously. Besides the talents, one of the big skills he has is his discipline, he’s very disciplined in his training, his preparation, and everything.
Kenenisa has maybe a little bit more talent, but, to train for the marathon, you need a lot of discipline. For the track, maybe you can get away sometimes with shorter preparation, more periodizing — but for the marathon, you need more time. That has been the big problem.
I don’t know how much you’ve followed everything between him and me. Three years ago, we had this kind of fall-out, because he was not disciplined enough. Now, that has changed, resulting in what happened last year.
So, Eliud went his way — he was always very determined, always very disciplined, and had a nice team around him, everything. So he made progress in many ways, as an athlete, as a personality.
Kenenisa…maybe cross country and the world records came a little bit too easy for him. I’m not saying — of course he trained very hard for it — but then there was a phase…
I think the problems for him started when there was no more cross country. After 2008, he had already so many titles in cross country, and now it went from four in two years to only one every two years [The IAAF dropped the short course in 2007, then has held the championships only every other year since 2011]. He just lost motivation for it.
With cross country, he had to prepare the whole winter to be in top shape in March, and when it was not there, he started to take some easy months, and not training the whole year. And then he started quite late for track.
He got away with it in the beginning; in 2009, he still was okay for Berlin [where he won an historic 5,000m/1000m World Championships double], but after that, he thought, “Okay, that’s fine, I don’t have to train 12 months anymore, I can do it with a little bit.” He forgot, the 2009 world championship he did on all the years of hard training.
And from then on, there was a lot of up and down with training, and all the injuries of course, but maybe the injuries also had to do with not a stable basis. So, that has been very, very challenging.
But he is now very motivated, he’s doing much better. Of course, now we have the corona problem — that’s going to affect both of them, but certainly him.
But London is a good thing. We’re going to look at something different in London. Two great athletes, two seconds separate. They have been running together, for … 17 years? Even more, I think as 18,19-year-old juniors. So, nearly 20 years together, racing. It’s fantastic. Two great athletes, two good guys. It’s magnificent.
It is good for the sport. For me, personally, there will be a winner, but there cannot be a loser — nobody is going to lose from this race. They’ve both achieved so many things, so it doesn’t really matter.
PR: With Bekele 38 years old, and Kipchoge 35, might this be the last time we see them in a head-to-head showdown like this?
Hermens: Both of those guys can still continue a few more years, no problem. I think 40 for an African runner, if they look well after themselves and they do all the necessary work, they can continue. Even Haile was, of course, still in it for a long time, and I think Haile maybe quit a little too early.
But this one is important, this will be a big fight. It’s great to see those guys, they’ve done so much for the sport, for long distance running.
PR: Who do you see coming up to replace them in the marathon?
Hermens: I’d say:
• Kamworor [2-time NYCM champion, half marathon world record in 58:01],
• Cheptegei — still on the track [world champion in cross country, 10,000m],
• Legese is very promising [2:02:48 marathon for second in Berlin 2019],
• and Mule Wasihun [2:03:16 marathon for third in London 2019]
For me, those will be the four guys who will be the next generation.
First, we can enjoy a few more years of those two guys, then other athletes will come.