On January 20th Ethiopia’s triple Olympic track gold medalist Kenenisa Bekele will start the sixth marathon of his career at the Standard Charter Dubai Marathon. Coming off a near-world record 2:03:03 win in Berlin last fall in his last start there are indications that the great Ethiopian track and cross country runner may have his sights set on the current marathon world record of 2:02:57, set by Kenya’s Dennis Kimetto in Berlin 2014.
Now I am one of those journalists who has consistently lobbied for a greater concentration on competition over time, but since this is what is on offer, I thought I would take a deeper dive into the probabilities of a new world record, using the past as prologue.
Though I have heard some faint murmurs from Addis Ababa that the political climate in Ethiopia is affecting some people’s ability to train freely – the troubles are in line with Olympic silver medalist Feyisa Lelisa’s anti-government protest at the Rio Olympics and his subsequent move to the U.S to seek asylum – let us assume for this study that all is well with Bekele’s preparations, and that he will arrive in Dubai in top form.
On April 6, 2014 Kenenisa Bekele ran his marathon debut in Paris, France. Against a less than competitive field the 31 year-old won by over 2 ½ minutes, stopped the timer at 2:05:03, which was a course record, sixth fastest debut in history, and fastest first-time marathon ever by a man over 30.
At the time I thought it would be interesting to look ahead by looking back (NUMBERING UP BEKELE’S MARATHON DEBUT). After all, record performances are the links that allow fans to compare and contrast athletes of different eras in much the same way baseball fans compare stats across time (at least until the steroid era kind of ruined that – Oops, do we have more in common with baseball than we realize?)
Anyway, I decided the best way to compare Kenenisa’s potential in the marathon would be to judge his marathon debut and projected career personal best (PB) against other former track record holders who subsequently moved up to great success in the marathon. Accordingly, I saw Kenya’s Paul Tergat and Ethiopia’s Haile Gebrselassie, as the canaries in this very high quality coal mine, as both pre-dated Bekele as world record holders at 5000 & 10,000 meters on the track before adding the marathon record to their resumes.
After Bekele’s near-world record 2:03:03 win in Berlin in September 2016, I thought it might be fun to see how those projections from 2014 have played out so far.
If we use as our comparison model “Improvement from Debut to Personal Best”, and begin with Kenya’s Paul Tergat, the 5000, 10,000 and marathon world record holder before Ethiopia’s Haile Gebrselassie amassed the same collection, we see a time improvement of 3:20 from Tergat’s 2:08:15 marathon debut in London 2001 to his 2:04:55 PB in Berlin 2003. Haile’s arc from Debut to PB stretched some six years, from his 2:06:35 third-place debut in London 2002 (Oh, what a race!) to his 2:03:59 world record win in Berlin 2008, a drop of 2:36.
2:36 is 78% of 3:20. Projecting that same percentage improvement onto Bekele’s debut (78% of 2:36) would cut 2:01 from his 2014 Paris performance to give him a potential PB of 2:03:02, the same time Geoffrey Mutai ran in the 2011 Boston Marathon.
But we already know that Bekele has dropped his PB down to 2:03:03 in Berlin last fall, just one second off my 2014 prediction based on the “Debut to PB Improvement” charts of Paul Tergat and Haile G. But we also know you can make stats justify any position you so desire. So here is another way to evaluate Kenenisa’s potential in the marathon.
Percentage Improvement from Debut to PB
Tergat = 2.669% – 2:08:15 to 2:04:55.
Haile = 2.097% – 2:06:35 to 2:03:59.
Bekele = 1.625% – 2:05:03 to 2:03:03.
Kimetto = 1.06% – 2:04:16 to 2:02:57 (WR).
As we can see, the better one’s debut the less room there is for percentage improvement. Current world record holder Dennis Kimetto’s debut in Berlin 2012 (2:04:16), one second behind training partner Geoffrey Mutai, was only shaved by an ensuing 1.06% to his 2:02:57 PB in Berlin two years later. Tergat and Haile both opened with (comparatively) more modest times, leaving them more leg-room to improve.
That said, there seems to be some uncharted territory still left for Kenenisa to explore, though based on how close all three men’s times were at the shorter distances on the track, the margins there suggest his best at the long distance isn’t too far off. But let’s say for argument’s sake he can improve his PB from his current 1.625% off his debut to a full 2%, similar to Haile. That would cut his PB down from 2:03:03 to 2:02:33, well beneath Dennis Kimetto’s current record. A 1.75% improvement on his debut would bring him to the line in 2:02:52, just five seconds under the world record.
One more consideration to consider. Paul Tergat began his marathon career in 2001, placing second in London in 2:08:15. He set his world record in his sixth career marathon, Berlin 2003, going on to run a total of ten career marathons, ending with a win at Lake Biwa, Japan in 2009. Haile started at that legendary 2002 London Marathon where Moroccan-born American Khalid Khannouchi shocked the world by breaking his own world record (2:05:38) by besting Tergat (2:05:48, which equaled Special K’s old mark), and Haile (2:06:35). In all Haile competed in 16 career marathons, finishing with a DNF in Fukuoka, Japan in 2012. He set his world record in his ninth career start in his fourth year of consistent marathon racing.
The January 20th Standard Charter Dubai Marathon now looms. It will mark Kenenisa Bekele’s sixth career start, the same career number marathon that produced Tergat’s record magic. Though I’m no fan of all-out record attempts when they are over-emphasized, there is no denying that an occasional record set up can be a thrilling addition to the sporting calendar. So let’s hope the weather in Dubai is clement in ten days, the pacers perform perfectly, and Kenenisa is on form.
TERGAT GEBRSELASSIE BEKELE KIMETTO