Much of what push back there’s been against the three Sub-2 Hour marathon projects concerns their focus on time rather than competition. Now comes word came that Ethiopian superstar Kenenisa Bekele has signed on to the April 23rd Virgin London Marathon, just days after being announced to run the Standard Charter Dubai Marathon on January 20th in what is likely a world record attempt. Hmmm.
Now a cynic might conclude that with defending London and Olympic champion Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya, along with former Boston champ Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia signed on to this spring’s Nike Project Breaking2 (at an as yet undisclosed location), London’s major name (if not two) has been stripped from the event marquee. So, notwithstanding Bekele’s Dubai appearance 13 weeks earlier, London needed a big name to build its 2017 race around. You can bet this isn’t the scenario the Abbott World Marathons Majors had in mind when they put together their series ten years ago.
But as the paydays of the marathon have continued to spread (if not actually grow), and the World Marathon Majors series title now paying off as a five-year $100,000 annuity rather than a one-fell-swoop $500,000 (because of Rita Jeptoo and Lilya Shobokhova stealing three Majors’ titles via drug disqualifications), we’ve begun to see more and more top athletes stretch their wings and challenge the old assumptions and the old-line events. Not only are the old warhorses like Bekele willing to squeeze more into less in terms of rest and recovery, youthful runners who might once have gone to the track ovals in Europe are now running marathons like they were halves.
With a marathon training cycle of 12 weeks, give or take, and a full recovery assigned one month, conventional wisdom has long held that two per year was the way to best schedule a top marathon career — with exceptions made for an Olympic year, where athletes were willing to compromise their fall effort for a shot at Olympic glory (World Championship not so much). The original five Abbott World Marathon Majors built their series upon this convention. But racing is not simply an exercise in trophy collection, it’s a business opportunity with only so many years available to stake your claims. Athletes like 22 year-old Lemi Berhanu Hayle is a prime example.
For the third year in a row the young Ethiopian has begun his marathoning year in January with a spring race right around the (proverbial) corner. This January 2nd Hayle won the Xiamen Marathon in China in 2:08:27, and is scheduled to defend his Boston Marathon crown 15 weeks later on April 17th. This scheduling carries risks as well as potential rewards.
In 2015 Hayle won Dubai in late January (2:05:28), then won Warsaw 13 weeks later in late April (2:07:57). But 17 weeks later in Beijing he fell back to 15th at the IAAF World Championships Marathon on August 22nd (2:17:36). Again in 2016 Hayle opened his campaign with a close second in Dubai in January (2:04:33), before winning in Boston on April 18th (2:12:45). But 18 weeks later he once again faded in the championship race with a 13th place finish in Rio at the Olympic Marathon (2:13:29).
Now we see 34 year-old Keninisa Bekele signing on to a Dubai-London double this year, a window of 13 weeks. And given he comes out of London injury free, he has already expressed interest in representing Ethiopia at the London World Championships this summer on August 6th just 15 weeks later. You think all three will go well?
The Cool Hand Lukes in all this remain Olympic champion Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya, 32, who is signed for the Nike Project Breaking2 this spring, and his friend and Kenyan rival, former world record holder Wilson Kipsang, 34.
Since he began his marathon career in Hamburg in 2013 (1st, 2:05:30), Kipchoge has run two marathons per year like clockwork, winning every time out except Berlin 2013 in his second career attempt where he finished second in 2:04:05 to Wilson Kipsang’s then world record 2:03:23. 2014 brought wins in Rotterdam (2:05:00) and Chicago (2:04:41). In 2015 he stood atop the podium in London (2:04:42) and Berlin (2:04:00). Last year he gathered the London (2:03:05) and Rio Olympic titles (2:08:44).
Wilson Kipsang has raced 16 marathons since his debut in Paris 2010 (3rd, 2:07:13). The fact that he ran his PR last September in Berlin (2:03:13) ten seconds behind Eliud Kipchoge may be due in part to the fact he has only raced two marathons in five of his seven years at the longer distance. Only in 2012 when New York City was cancelled due to Hurricane Sandy, and Wilson opted to apply his fitness at the Honolulu Marathon in December (1st, 2:12:31) after a win in London in the spring and a bronze medal in the London Olympics that summer, and in 2015 when he DNF’d in the Beijing World Championships between a second place in London and a fourth in NYC, has he squeezed three long races into a single calendar year.
So much of life is tied into accepted wisdom that sometimes it is hard to break out of the mind’s confinement. It is also tough to say no, when yes can seem so alluring. Maybe the old “two-per-year” saw may not still hold true in this brave new world of long distance racing. But to date we have yet to see a run of three marathons in 12 months at the highest competitive level prove as successful as two. Whether young (Hayle) or old (Bekele), hungry hearts don’t always beat to the drum of their own choosing. As always, though, history is at the ready of being rewritten.