Taken on its merits, Eliud Kipchoge’s marathon career will have been the bridge spanning the 2:00:00 marathon barrier. After his 2:02:37 win in London 2019, his top 10 official average (not counting his two <2hour exhibitions) sat at 2:03:43. His only loss in his first 11 starts, in his debut, still produced a 2:04:05 runner-up finish to Wilson Kipsang’s 2:03:23 world record in Berlin 2013.
Eventually, somebody will come along and construct a top-10 career marathon average below two hours – perhaps in the not too distant future, considering the way technology advances are trending. But in all regards, Kipchoge is the most proficient, efficient marathoner we have ever seen.
On Sunday in Berlin, Ethiopian great Kenenisa Bekele will attempt to break Kipchoge’s marathon world record of 2:01:39, set in the German capital three years ago. Bekele came within two seconds of that mark the following year on the same course. Then Covid-19 arrived and the world lost a calendar year-plus in performance as the running world was shutdown by the virus. That lost year may well prove critical to Bekele’s chances this Sunday. And not just because Kenenisa contracted the virus this past summer.
With any such distance event as the marathon, performance is predicated on metabolic cost, because fuel has been the determining factor throughout the history of the event.
Yet the times we are witnessing today have changed the equation somewhat. The new technologies have reduced the metabolic cost of each stride. Accordingly, today’s times cannot be attributed to improved coaching, training, or nutrition, weight work, or physiotherapy, though all play an incremental role in building an athlete’s natural capabilities.
One thing is certain. This is not a result of an evolution in human capacity, but rather an example of punctuated equilibrium in the equipment, just as it was for swimmers a decade ago with their slick LZR body suits – until they were banned by FINA, swimming’s governing body.
I recall two-time World Cross Country champion, Craig Virgin, telling me how, after his first marathon in Fukuoka, Japan, the experience led to his understanding that there are four types of distance running: track, cross country, roads, and the marathon. Though it may be run on the road, the marathon is different, in that you have to prepare differently, race differently, and recover differently, from the shorter distance events.
On Sunday, Kenenisa Bekele is attempting to be the third male world record holder on the track at 5000 and 10,000 meters to add the marathon world record to his CV.
Kenya’s five-time World Cross Country champion, Paul Tergat, required six marathons before he notched his first 42.2K win and PB in Berlin 2003, in a then world record 2:04:55, at age 34. His great rival, Haile Gebreselassie of Ethiopia, also required time to retool his track racing stride for the longer distance, not recording his marathon best until Berlin 2008 at 2:03:59 in his ninth career start at age 35.
So where do we find Kenenisa Bekele, another in that line of 5000 and 10,000m world record holders and cross country GOAT, as he attempts to add the marathon WR to his CV in Berlin?
Now age 39, Bekele is asking quite a bit of himself. His PB, 2:01:41, is second best all-time officially, and just :02 off Kipchoge’s world record. Eliud ran his world record at age 33 in his tenth career marathon start. Kenenisa’s PB also came in his tenth career marathon at age 37.
The new shoe technology has turned history on its head and created opportunities for performance once considered beyond human capacity. Neither Tergat nor Gebreselassie had an opportunity to perform in the new shoes. Mr. Kipchoge certainly has since 2016.
It may not be up-to-date, but the latest age 39 marathon record I could find is 2:06:00 run by Kenya’s Mark Kiptoo in 2015 at Eindhoven, Netherlands. That was a year before the new shoe technology was introduced.
While Kipchoge never held any track world records like Paul, Haile, and Kenenisa, nor notched a world title in cross country like Paul and Kenenisa, he has been wildly productive in the marathon, losing only twice in 14 starts, never mind the 2:00:25 and 1:59:41 exhibitions in 2017 and 2019.
Besides his PB, 2:01:41, Bekele has only cracked 2:05 one other time in his 10 career marathons, 2:03:03, while winning Berlin in 2016. He has won two other times, but also DNFd three times.
While Bekele’s coach Haji Adilo is quoted as saying his athlete’s health is “very good”, seems to me that anything south of 2:05:00 would be an outstanding achievement for Bekele on Sunday in Berlin. A new world record would be historic, in more ways than one. Wishing him the best, we await the effort with great anticipation.
BEKELE MARATHON CV
1st, Paris 2014 – 2:05:04
4th, Chicago 2014 – 2:05:51
DNF, Dubai 2015
3rd, London 2016 – 2:06:36
1st, Berlin 2016 – 2:03:03
DNF, Dubai 2017
2nd, London 2017 – 2:05:57
DNF, Berlin 2017
6th, Berlin 2018 – 2:08:53
1st, Berlin 2019 – 2:01:41