This is one of those everyonevhasanopinion races.
Like the prize fight between Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor August 26, or Triple G vs Canelo Alvarez last Saturday (16 Sept.), this coming Sunday’s BMW Berlin Marathon has something for everyone.
It is an interesting notation, however, that never in modern history have all the top marathoners in the world been on the same starting line at the same time. Even the Olympics limits competitors to three per nation. With so many events glutting the calendar, there is a natural leveling in the quality of all race fields, including within the Abbott World Marathon Majors, which all draw from the same talent pool. This year, however, and perhaps for the first time, Berlin race director Mark Milde will showcase a trio of past champions that make his race the brightest light in the fall marathon firmament.
On September 24th defending champion Kenenisa Bekele of Ethiopia will again take on 2016 runner-up and 2013 champ Wilson Kipsang of Kenya, with 2015 Berlin winner, 2016 Olympic champion, and 2017 Breaking2 supernova Eliud Kipchoge adding to the thunder. In this time of natural dilution, Berlin has gathered the dream (men’s) race everyone wants to see.
Last year Bekele and Kipsang battled to a near world record in the German capital, with Bekele besting his Kenyan rival by ten seconds, 2:03:03 – 2:03:13, Bekele just six seconds shy of Dennis Kimetto’s 2:02:57 world record set in Berlin `14. Eliud Kipchoge arrives off a historic 2:00:25 Breaking2 marathon exhibition in Monza, Italy in May. And last year he not only won the Olympic gold in Rio, but came within eight seconds of the world record in London in April. All three men have been sharpening their pencils to rewrite the record book on Sunday.
To date, the Dream Race title holder is the 2002 London Marathon where America’s Khalid Khannouchi – remember him? – took on Kenya’s Paul Tergat and a debuting Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia, with Special K taking the win, breaking his own world record by four seconds in 2:05:38, ten seconds up on Tergat and 37 seconds clear of Geb.
There is an old adage that systems create realities. And in running’s system of paying a combination of under-the-table appearance fees, prize and time bonus money, and shoe contracts that are tied to end-of-the-year rankings in Track & Field News, any chance of developing strong rivalries has been pinched off.
Since the middle distance glory days of Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett in the late 1970s/early 80s, athletes have been so protective of their rankings they often avoid other top competition unless victory seemed certain. Or, they’d seek a less competitive opportunity where the primary opponent was the clock.
For years, London has dominated the spring marathon season in terms of depth and quality of fields, while New York and Chicago have traded preeminence in the fall. With its uber-fast two-loop course where the last six men’s world records have been set, Berlin has focused more on paced record attempts than pure competition. Though there have been many memorable two-man duels like Tergat vs Sammy Korir in 2003, Makau-Geoffrey Mutai 2010, G. Mutai-Kimetto in 2012, Kipsang-Kipchoge 2013, and Bekele-Kipsang 2016.
This year Berlin is holding the cards in name quality with the three fastest men in history, the top three men currently in the game, each coming off strong 2016 and 2017 performances. This race promises to be a fight for outright marathon supremacy, short-lived though that always is.
Wilson Kipsang has announced his intentions via Twitter.
“I am better placed than anyone else to break the world record. I have done it before and believe I am able to do it again.” #beatBerlinWR
2010 -2011 Berlin champion and former record holder Patrick Makau is a late entrant, but he hasn’t broken 2:08 since 2012 (when he won Frankfurt in 2:06:08). He agrees that Kipsang should be considered the favorite. And with no marathon in the tall man’s legs since a solo 2:03:58 win in Tokyo in January, that analysis has merit. The other Big 2 hope to take flight in Berlin off shorter runways, Bekele dropping out of Dubai in January at 20k after taking a nasty spill at the overcrowded start, then finishing a hard-fought second in London in April. And though Kipchoge ran that 2:00:25 affair in Monza, Italy in May, and has the shortest recovery of the three, how one could dismiss him in light of his eight wins in nine career marathon starts strikes me as unreflective. He has bested Bekele twice at the distance, Chicago 2014 (1st – 4th), and London 2016 (1st – 3rd). But his only loss, Berlin 2013, came at the hands of Kipsang in Wilson’s then-world record 2:03:23.
Two other times, London 2015 (1st – 2nd) and London 2016 (1st – 5th) – Kipchoge has handled Wilson. Yet 33-year-old Kipchoge told CapitaFM that he has more pressure on him to set a new world record than the other two, on the order of 95% to 40%. Perhaps that is an acknowledgment that Breaking2 in May exacted a toll that such a relatively quick turnaround can’t fully pay.
The biggest lesson learned at the Breaking2 Project was that besides his own talent and training, Kipchoge’s biggest advantage in Monza was the constantly renewable diamond-shaped pack of pacers. But that will not be a lesson that can be applied to Berlin this Sunday.
“We will have just three pacemakers for each (time) group,” explained race director Mark Milde via email. “Therefore the diamond will not really work, I guess. And I suppose that the Big 3 will not line up in a way that they would help each other. Sammy Kitwara is the strongest pacer on paper and hopefully, he will go until 32k.”
Chicago has some big names this year, too, including Kenyan defending champ Abel Kirui along with Olympic silver and bronze medalists Feyisa Lelisa of Ethiopia and American Galen Rupp. And New York City announced its international signees in late August, which looks a lot like last year’s battle up First Avenue, led by defender Ghirmay Ghebrselassie, runner-up Lucas Rotich and two-time Boston champ Lelisa Desisa.
But for the first time in years, if not ever, Berlin is the undisputed fall marathon (men’s) recruiting champion. Now we will have to see if the third man added theory generates record speed once the final pacer departs, or if hesitancy arrives now that the win itself has been elevated, as well.