Strange to see Kenenisa Bekele still having issues in his marathons after such a long run of success on the track and cross country. After being widely recognized as the distance running G.O.A.T., you just expect each of his following steps to be equally agile and precise. But after eight marathon starts in four years, this GOAT seems to be butting his head against a particularly stubborn foe. To date he has only racked up two wins, one fewer than his total number of drop-outs.
The three time Olympic and five time World track champion has pledged that he will break the marathon world record before he retires, and said his DNF in Berlin September 24th had more to do with the cold and rain than with his preparation. And he was “dismayed” after his manager Jos Hermens suggested to Letsrun.com that Bekele spent too much time concentrating on his business interests rather than training.
Several years ago I wrote some verse – THE END OF MYTH – about the demise of the marathon as a truly scary distance for top tier athletes after Ethiopian track man Markos Geneti ran 2:06 to win his debut at the 2011 Los Angeles Marathon. But every once a while, and notably with someone like Bekele, the old lady can still bare her teeth and say, “Not so fast”.
But is it the distance or, like Bekele’s manager Jos Hermens suggests, is it Bekele? Because that’s the bugaboo with success. The more you have, the more responsibilities you take on, until the responsibilities rob you of the focus needed to generate the next success.
It is true, it takes time to transfer track speed to marathon success. All we have to do is look back to Bekele’s track predecessors Paul Tergat and Haile Gebrselassie to witness that truth. It took both those previous track world record holders some experience at the marathon to find their groove. Tergat’s marathon world record came in his sixth career start (Berlin 2003), while Haile’s two marathon records were set in his seventh and ninth attempts (Berlin ’07 & ’08).
To date, Bekele has started eight marathons since his debut in Paris 2014 (1st, 2:05:04), three alone in 2017, with two of those being drop outs that together didn’t add up to a single marathon distance.
But over his four year marathon career, he has fashioned only two wins, though the last was a beauty in Berlin last year. But even when he finally ran to his expectations with a near-world record 2:03:03 (off a 61:11 first half), Bekele had to battle Kenyan ace Wilson Kipsang who twice gapped him over the last 12k. Kenenisa had to fight from behind at 30k and 35k before putting Wilson away at 41k.
Then in January 2017 he took a spill at the start in Dubai, dropping out after just 20k. And in London this April he began to fade after the 61:43 half as blisters forced him to alter his stride, which then caused further issues for his right hamstring. After 30k, though, he began to feel good again, and clawed back from sixth place all the way to within nine seconds of Daniel Wanjiru at the end. Jeez, if the guy could ever nail it down right, huh? But can he?
Is the man focused enough, or simply trying to fit training into a larger work day? When 2:03 is the goal, and the other guy is there, there isn’t anyone on the planet good enough to go at it part-time.
It is precisely because western societies have become so complicated and diversionary that pure focused marathon training is so difficult to sustain. We saw how Deena Kastor (then Drossin) transformed from a solid All-American at the University of Arkansas into a world-beater after joining coach Joe Vigil in the high-altitude isolation of Alamosa, Colorado and then Mammoth Lakes, California. Fellow Team USA Coach Bob Larsen spoke of how the isolation of Mammoth was the big draw every bit as much as the altitude. Focus, baby!
Go to any one of the isolated training camps in the Central Highlands of Kenya, and even the most accomplished of the campers can be found drawing his own water from a well. And men who live no more than ten kilometers away stay at their camp all week rather than go home every night. It is total immersive training.
Kenenisa can probably get away with victories in tier 2 type races with the kind of training he currently does. But to break the world record, and beat the very best opponents like Eliud Kipchoge will require another level of commitment. The only question is whether he’s willing to lay it all on the line.