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Road Races

Bekele Ready to Shoot for Marathon World Record in Berlin

Kenenisa Bekele’s agent reveals his training for the 2021 Berlin Marathon has been similar to 2019 — when he missed the world record by 2 seconds.

On a phone call Thursday morning from the Dusseldorf airport, en route to Berlin, Kenenisa Bekele’s long time agent, Jos Hermens, was bullish on the star’s prospects this Sunday.

“He’s ready, he’s motivated, he’s in a good mood, good shape — and he’s a tough competitor,” Hermens said.

Hermens doesn’t like making brash statements, but he said enough to get us excited about the prospects.

“Let’s say we’ll go for a fast time,” he said. “And a fast time is clearly a world record. We don’t want to announce an official world record attempt, but obviously, Kenenisa is not going to come to run 2:04 — and also not 2:03.”

Bekele 2:01 marathon
photo: ©SCC EVENTS / Norbert Wilhelmi

After Bekele arrives in Germany tomorrow they’ll settle on the exact pace, but Hermens says the goal for halfway will likely be 61 minutes flat.

Bekele split 61:05 in Berlin in 2019 on his way to a 2:01:41 victory. Eliud Kipchoge hit the half at 61:06 during his world record, 2:01:39 run on the same course a year earlier.

“In the end, obviously, it’s how you feel after 35K,” Hermens says. “Can you kick off a few seconds each K, or not.”

The Difference of a Year

The world has reason to be a bit leery of Bekele these days. Once seemingly invincible — he’s won 21 world titles and broken six track world records — the marathon has proven tricky for him. While he’s narrowly missed the world record twice, in 10 marathon starts he’s had three DNF’s and he’s only won three times — which amounts to a spotty record for someone widely considered the running G.O.A.T.

Plus, he hasn’t completed a marathon since that 2019 run. Last fall he withdrew from the elite-only London marathon that was touted as a showdown with Kipchoge — just two days before the race, citing an injury sustained during his last hard training session.

What’s different this year to make us believe again, when we haven’t seen Bekele toe the line for 18 months, since breaking Mo Farah’s course record in the Vitality Big Half race in London in March 2020?

Hermens cautiously claims this year has seen some improvements over last in Bekele’s preparation and mindset.

“We prepared, obviously, for fall 2020 London,” Hermens said. “He did all his preparation, and was in pretty good shape — and then, of course, he got injured. One of the reasons: he always takes too short of time and puts too much hard training in the last few weeks, instead of tapering off.”

This year, Bekele appears to be arriving in Germany rested and ready. “I think that was better now, it looks like,” Hermens said. “It was still not ideal, but not too bad.”

What wasn’t ideal? Getting COVID-19, for one. Bekele was sick with the virus during the end of April, into May. And the pandemic continued to disrupt his training patterns and access to his physical therapist.

“He lost many months with all these things,” Hermens said. “But he picked up really quickly. One of the things we have to conclude, the guy has 20 years of hard training in the body — he’s a running machine. So maybe he might not need 5-6 months of preparation like other people do. Would be ideal to do it a little bit longer, but that’s still difficult.”

Significantly, however, this year Bekele was able to travel to Holland for five weeks during his training — as he did in his preparation for Berlin 2019. Training at sea level, with the strict care of NN Running Team coaches, physical therapists, and nutritionists, Bekele is able to fine-tune his fitness and care for nagging injuries, before returning to Ethiopia for a final six weeks of altitude work.

“Coming to sea level to train works very good for him,” Hermens says. “And he’s one of those guys that has exceptional adaption from altitude to sea level.”

A 2019 Bekele, Looking Toward the Future

So, while the marathon training may not have started quite as soon as Hermens would have liked, overall, he thinks we’re looking at more of a 2019 Bekele than a 2020 one.

“Is it ideal? No, it is still not,” Hermens said. “But he is around the shape of two years ago. So… ‘around,’ what is ‘around?’ Hopefully five seconds faster. Or 30 seconds slower. We’ll see.”

More than anything, Hermens is proud of how Bekele has buckled down and focused in the past three years.

“The good thing: He’s more professional, more disciplined, he’s very motivated,” Hermens said. “In that way, it’s a different Kenenisa the last few years. I think we’re going to see a few more nice years with him.”

And what of being a year shy of the masters ranks?

“What do we always say? What’s in a number?” Hermens quips. “The motor still works, we’ll have to see how the chassis holds.”

Whatever happens on Sunday, we’ll get to see Bekele again this fall on the streets of New York City come November. Can he recover in time to run strong again? Hermens cites Bekele’s many double-distance cross country championships.

“Let’s not forget the past with him in the cross country championships: He’d run against eight fresh Kenyans one day, and the next day, again eight fresh Kenyans — and he’d beat them all.” Bekele, Hermens says, has an incredible ability to recover quickly and race often.

In fact, Berlin may be a stepping stone to an even stronger performance in NYC. “I think he might be in even better shape in NY than he’s in now,” Hermens said. “Because then we’re going to get close to the 4–5 months preparation we wanted to do.”

That would make Berlin a long run, six weeks out. A 26.2-mile long run in 2:01, that is, if all goes well.

You can watch the Berlin Marathon in the US on Peacock, NBC Sports Network or Flotrack — starting at 3:00 a.m. EDT Sunday morning, September 26.