Kipchoge poised for great Bekele showdown
It’s already been dubbed one of the greatest sporting showdowns. Ali v Frazier; Federer v Djokovic; Kipchoge v Bekele.
Perhaps. Sporting history is littered with predicted ‘greatest ever’ head-to-head clashes that never quite materialised in the heat of contest.
But this one certainly has the credentials: the two fastest marathon men of all time, separated by just two seconds on paper, by two strides on the road; one the Olympic champion, world-record holder, four-time London champion and barrier-breaking sub-two-hour history maker; the other a former track legend, multi-world-record breaker and three-time Olympic gold medallist who’s finally found his marathon legs lurking beneath his astonishing talent.
For Eliud Kipchoge, a man who appears to have done it all over 26.2 miles, the 2020 Virgin Money London Marathon on Sunday 4 October represents yet another chance to make road running history by becoming the first able-bodied athlete in 40 editions to win the London title five times.
That, said the 35-year-old Kenyan today, would be “a fantastic achievement”.
“I am feeling well and very happy to be back to run for my fifth title,” said the ever-relaxed Kipchoge. “I think the race will be a really fruitful one for us on Sunday and a fast race.
“I am very happy to come here and race Kenenisa after such a long time. It will be great to be able to enjoy racing again and bring some hope.”
For Bekele, it’s a chance to finally prove himself in the British capital where his previous attempts at victory have resulted in second, third and sixth-place finishes.
In the meantime, the 38-year-old Ethiopian has won the Berlin Marathon twice, most recently 12 months ago when he came within two seconds of the 2:01:39 world record set by his Kenyan rival a year before.
He’d run fast before, of course – 2:03:03 in Berlin in 2016 – but after a series of injuries and dropped-out races, Bekele admits that near world-record victory finally made him believe he could be the man to topple the marathon king.
“We have both been in the sport for a long time and are role models for the younger generation,” he said. “As an athlete I have great respect for Eliud. What he has done is a great thing for the sport.
“But now we are racing against each other and I am happy to be doing that. Missing his record by two seconds took discipline, discipline, and that’s what it will take to beat him.”
No athlete has more discipline than Kipchoge, of course, a man famed for his monk-like lifestyle and laser-beam focus. The form book certainly points to another Kipchoge victory – he has not lost a single marathon race for seven years, after all, and has been defeated just once in 12 official contests.
His record in London is spotless. Not only has he won all four of his races here but he has twice broken the course record, most recently running 2:02:37 in April 2019, a contest that saw two men go under 2:03 for the first time.
On paper, the pair are evenly matched. They’re the only two ever to run under 2:02 and between them hold seven of the fastest 20 times in history. But Kipchoge has come out on top on all four occasions they have met over the distance – twice in London, once in Chicago and once in Berlin.
It was a different story on the track, however, where Bekele held an eight-two advantage at 5,000m between 2003 and 2012 and finished ahead in their only encounter at 10,000m in 2011.
The form book often lies, of course, and in 2020 there are more reasons than most to suggest this will be an unpredictable race – perhaps “the most unpredictable ever”, according to Event Director Hugh Brasher.
Chief cause of that uncertainty is the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic, which has disrupted sporting calendars, athletes’ training and racing plans, and led to the cancellation of every other Abbott World Marathon Majors race this year bar Tokyo.
Indeed, Kipchoge described the enforced need to prepare alone this year as “like an electric shock” after 17 seasons training with a squad of up to 20 talented teammates.
“It was really difficult when I had to train on my own,” he said. “It was hard to get fit and to a high level of training. But lately we have consolidated a bigger team around me and training has been good.”
For Bekele too, preparation has not been “as perfect as I planned”. “More or less I have trained well, but it has been really difficult in Africa generally, so it has affected us a lot,” he said.
The necessary Covid restrictions and vigilant safety measures also mean The 40th Race is a London Marathon like no other. Kipchoge may have won the title four times, but the new ‘biosecure’ looped course around St James’s Park will be as unfamiliar to him as it is to the rest of the field.
True to form, however, the ever-undaunted Kenyan says he’s relishing the chance to attack his world record on such flat terrain, a route not too dissimilar to the Vienna course where he ran the historic yet ineligible time of 1:59:40 a year ago.
“I am really looking forward to Sunday’s race after 11 months and 18 days [of not racing],” he said. “I am very happy to be back.
“Sunday will be a different race from Vienna, of course. I think running laps like this will be OK. We will be able to access more drinks than normal so that will help.
“I don’t think the focus will change, though, we are all doing the same laps with the same pacemakers after all.
“But the crowd normally plays a massive role in the marathon and Sunday will be difficult because it will have a silent feel. It’s important people can watch us virtually and stay safe.”
“It is really nice to have crowds around, especially in the marathon,” agreed Bekele. “When you are running for two hours without crowds it will be difficult, but we know it’s important everyone stays healthy. It is a bad time for everyone so we all have to accept it.”
As for how fast the pair may run, something around 61 minutes at halfway “would be OK”, according to Kipchoge, while Bekele says he’s “not planning anything”.
“More or less I can guess it’s going to be really fast,” he added. “I’ve never known a slow pace in London, especially when Kipchoge is there. We know it will be fast from the start.”
However quick, it’s unlikely just to be a two-man race as there are several other distinguished names in the men’s field of 41, including six who have broken 2:05.
Among them are the Ethiopian pair who came second and third in 2019, Mosinet Geremew and Mule Wasihun, plus 2018 runner-up Shura Kitata, and last year’s Rotterdam and Amsterdam champions, Marius Kipserem and Vincent Kipchumba, both from Kenya.
Certainly, neither Kipchoge nor Bekele are taking anything for granted.
“It’s a new course that no one has run on before so it’s difficult to say if it’s really fast or not. Anything is possible,” said Bekele. “It’s never easy to run on curves for such a long way, you can lose some speed sometimes. We’ll just have to see on Sunday.”
The elite men’s race starts at 10:15 on Sunday 4 October.