In the past, it was the pure strength men, or those who couldn’t quite finish fast enough on the Olympic track to earn medals, who sought solace in the marathon. Back then the world record was less a goal than an outcome. Names like Derek Clayton, Ron Hill, Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers, Toshihiko Seko, Alberto Salazar, Rob de Castella, Steve Jones, and Juma Ikangaa are still venerated by old hearts.
Today, with the rewards to be made, young men come into the game totally fearless, all the progeny of the late Sammy Wanjiru, the mercurial Kenyan who announced a new era in marathon running when he attacked the 2008 Beijing Olympic course on a hot summer’s day as if he were on a 10k romp through a dewy meadow on a perfect spring morn. The following spring in London he goaded pacers to a 28:30 first 10k on the way to a 1:01:36 half and a brave, but fading 2:05:10 win.
Wanjiru forever changed the relationship between racers and the distance in those two races, stripping the marathon of much of its mystique, and arming marathoners everywhere with new courage at starting lines around the world.
We saw the full effect of the Wanjiru Era last May in Monza, Italy when former 5000 meter world champion Eliud Kipchoge came within 25 seconds of the two-hour barrier at Nike’s Breaking2 Project exhibition. And now on September 24th in Berlin, Kipchoge, along with defending champion Kenenisa Bekele of Ethiopia and 2013 winner and ’16 runner up Wilson Kipsang of Kenya will meet at the 44th BMW Berlin Marathon, hunting for sub-2:02:57, the official marathon world record. It is a glorious matchup between two former track men moving up and one pure marathon man, each a past winner in the German capital.
2013 Berlin Marathon champ and 2016 runner up Kipsang has quite modest 5000 & 10,000 meter track PRs of 14:20 and 28:31 compared to the PRs of his Berlin opponents Kipchoge (12:46 – 26:49) and Bekele (12:37 – 26:17). It makes you wonder how he stands a chance. But such are the particular challenges and vagaries of the marathon.
Like his record producing predecessors Paul Tergat and Haile Gebrselassie, current track 5000 & 10,000 world record holder Kenenisa Bekele moved up to the marathon only when his finishing speed on the track had diminished. So, too, like his esteemed colleagues, it took Bekele several attempts at the longer distance to finally decipher its particular nuances.
Last yearin Berlin in his fourth career start, Bekele came within six seconds of Dennis Kimetto’s world record, though his 2:03:03 only beat 2013 champion and former record holder Kipsang by a scant ten seconds.
Since then, Bekele has failed to finish in Dubai in January after taking a hard spill at an over-crowded starting line. Then, after developing blisters around 15k and falling as far back as sixth, he clawed his way back to a gutty second place finish in London in April.
After Keninisa Bekele’s 2:05:04 marathon debut in Paris 2014, I thought it would be interesting to look ahead by looking back. Records are the lattice upon which the sport of athletics grow, giving fans a chance 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 of late kind of ruined that).
I thought, let’s compare Bekele’s marathon debut and projected career arc in the marathon against fellow former 5000, 10,000, and marathon record holders Haile Gebrselassie and Paul Tergat.
The numbers get a little blurry here, so bear with me. Haile’s 10,000m PR and former world record of 26:22.75 (Hengelo `98) is 99.307% of Keninisa’s 26:17.53 world record from Brussels 2005.
Projecting the same arc in performance that Gebrselassie attained in the marathon with his 2:03:59 then-world record in Berlin 2008, would mean Bekele’s improvement of .693% over Haile at 10,000m would translate to a marathon PB of 2:03:08 which is pretty close to his current 2:03:03.
If we look at it from a slightly different perspective, however, “Improvement from Debut to PR”, and begin with Kenya’s Paul Tergat, the 5000, 10,000 and marathon world record holder before Haile, we see an improvement of 3:20 from Tergat’s marathon debut in London 2001 to his in Berlin 2003 PR (2:08:15 — 2:04:55). Haile’s arc from debut to PR stretched some six years, from his third place in London 2002 to his second world record in Berlin 2008 (2:06:35 — 2:03:59), a drop of 2:36 from debut to PR.
Haile’s 2:36 improvement is 78% of Paul’s 3:20. So projecting ahead that same percentage improvement from Kenenisa’s debut would lower his marathon best by 2:01 to 2:03:02, just one second faster than his current PR. In either case, 2:03:08 or 2:03:02, we see a time that is dancing on the edge of history’s projection. Is something faster still in him?
Tergat set his world record in his sixth career marathon, Berlin 2003 (2:04:55). Haile ran the marathon world record twice in Berlin, first in 2007 (2:04:26) in his seventh career start, and again a year later in his ninth attempt (2:03:59). He squeezed a 2:04:53 win in Dubai between in January 2008.
Berlin 2017 will mark Wilson Kipsang’s 18th career marathon, a remarkable record of excellence. His world record was run in his ninth start (Berlin 2013), though his PR was set in his 16th (Berlin 2016) when he finished second to Bekele. He has stripped 4:00 off his debut to his PR.
Sunday will be Kenenisa’s seventh marathon start, Kipchoge’s tenth, if we include Breaking2. Kipchoge has taken 2:25 off his debut to his PR in winning all but one of his starts, while Bekele has only shaved 2:01 from his 2:05:04 start to his 2:03:03 PR, having only won two of his six marathons.
Based on this history, however, I still suggest that Bekele’s potential marathon peak stands higher than either of his two Sunday rivals. Whether this race, or his career, play that potential out is why we watch with such anticipation.
Weather remains the wild-card for Sunday morning. A projected race-time temp of 56F (13C) and slight NE wind at 7 mph (11.27 kph) does not equate with perfect conditions. Three years ago when Kimetto set the record the start time temp was 46F (7.8C). Almost all the top times in history have been run in sub-50F conditions start to finish.
Whether as a pure race, or as a record attempt, Berlin 2017 is one of the most highly anticipated marathons in years. Congratulations to race director Mark Milde for putting it together. See you on the far side.
PAUL TERGAT HAILE GEBRSELASSIE KENENISA BEKELE
WILSON KIPSANG ELIUD KIPCHOGE KENENISA BEKELE
5000 14:20 12:46 12:37
10,000 28:31 26:49 26:17
1/2 Mar 58:59 59:25 60:09
DEBUT 2:07:13 2:05:30 2:05:04
PR 2:03:13 2:03:05 2:03:03
Berlin 2017 ??? ??? ???