Bekele remains the most accomplished world cross-country runner in history with six long-course (12km) and five short-course (4km) titles to his name.
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The 34-year-old is also the current holder of the world and Olympic records in the 5,000m and 10,000m event. He has been crowned triple Olympic gold medallist, five-time world championship medallist and also second-fastest man in an eligible marathon course.
Just six months ago, he reignited the thirst of many athletic fans and bookmakers – the race to beat the two-hour mark. Bekele went close to Dennis Kimetto’s 2.02:57 time, which he missed by six seconds, at the same venue in Berlin and with the Brandenburg Gate as an imposing backdrop.
It was another case of so close, yet so far, as he smashed his previous personal best by two minutes and sealed the thrilling closing stages, underlined by a battle of the ages between himself and second-placed finisher Wilson Kipsang.
These last twelve months have been viewed as the phase that the world record could take a tumble.
“I didn’t do it in Dubai but this year or the next, all I want to do is to break the world record,” Bekele said.
Precisely three athletes have gone close to breaking the world marathon record since last year: Eliud Kipchoge, Bekele and Kipsang have inched closer to what has been widely regarded as the human limit.
Kipchoge, who endorsed his own credentials with a time of 2.03:05 last year in London – a lifetime best – saw Bekele slash his time by two seconds (2.03:03) a few months later in September in Berlin where Kipsang was second with 2:03:13.
Kipsang begun his new season in Tokyo with a warning, shattering the all comers record by cementing his legendary status with fourth sub-2:04 finish as he won in 2.03.58. This pattern points to one thing – it’s just a matter of when, rather than if, the barrier set by Kimetto will be breached.
Dubai was earmarked as the next location at the attempt to lower the time, but a fall that caused a calf injury to end Bekele’s efforts before his race to beat the clock had even started.
His interest now is on a star-studded London marathon next month.
“Yes, after experiencing a minor injury in Dubai when I fell down in the opening stages, I have managed to recover fully and believe I will achieve a good result in London.
“The race will offer good competition but you never know what the other elite participants will bring to the table, but personally I’m preparing well and after we will see what is served up.
“Dubai was strange, I didn’t expect that the start line would be so narrow and crammed up and when they restarted the shotgun twice or thrice, it threw me off mentally with confusion reigning in on everyone in it.
“When the fun runners are mixed with the professional ones and pushing each other becomes the order in such small spaces, it was an unexpected occasion and difficult for me to come back after the fall due to the imbalance felt in the body. It was very tough, but the weather and pacemakers were perfect for the job.
“Of course, it was not such a strong race; if I didn’t fall down, I would have won the race easily, even if I could not have broken the world record on the course. It wasn’t difficult for me to grab the honours,” Bekele admitted.
His demeanour showed a determined and focused man with his sights on a even much bigger target going forward. When asked what a star-studded London field might push him to do, he responded diplomatically.
“[It] depends on the weather conditions and atmosphere there, but of course I want to run a fast time and do better. I’m preparing myself well and after, we will see what happens next. London is not an easy place for timing – it has a very challenging course, strong field and competitors. I can’t commit to break the record but can vouch to do my best.”
However, the sensation and anticipation which has grappled masses across the world is heightened as science, and even technology, explore the possibility of turning conceptions into reality where a breaking of the sub-2-hour time is concerned. And the assignment of the involved stakeholders like Bekele has gathered momentum.
The Ethiopian is part of a sub-2-hour project run by co-founder Yannis Pitsiladis, professor of sport and exercise science at the University of Brighton. What are Bekele’s thoughts on a project that, when launched, sought $30-million to get rolling?
“You know, there is a little bit of confusion when it comes to the two projects. The former was created by professor Yannis Pitsiladis based in the UK, a scientist, and his goal was to help athletes run faster and improve their overall performance.
“It doesn’t matter if I am a Nike athlete. It is a strange thing [that] I’m not included in Breaking2 and now I am working with professor Yannis. They have a camp for sub-2 in Eldoret, a place where they discover and nurture talent for newcomers, offer nutrition, physio and other aspects of training routines. And in Ethiopia they are found in my camp in Sululta. I’m very happy to be working with them because they helped and are helping me to improve my time. I’m happy with the project, I am a beneficiary of it and we will see what happens in future.
“Professor Yannis is always behind every hardworking athlete in the entire project in terms of advising as well as guiding the athletes. I hope he will achieve something in future, sometimes there is difficulty in budget where he did face challenges, but we hope some companies will step forward to help him solve that.
“We have seen improvement even recently. Kipsang ran course record in Tokyo, so this is the value of his project and improving by over one minute in a course record is great. I am looking forward to more of what this project has to offer.”
With the launch of the Breaking2 project by Nike late last year, a trio of big names were introduced as well – Olympic champion Eliud Kipchoge, alongside double Boston Marathon champion Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia and Eritrea’s world record half-marathon holder Zersenay Tadese.
When asked about his thoughts on it, he differentiated the duo:
“It’s difficult to answer this question because as far as I know the sub-2-hour project is always with lots of athletes, and not just with a few athletes like the counterpart. It is more inclusive with athletes that have different kit sponsors and doesn’t matter the company. The target was to help athletes on how they can reach maximum levels and find something better and new. Sub-two is involved in that kind of thinking and it’s not business or selling shoes or sports equipment, it is all about helping athletes reach maximum levels.”
He described his successful transition from track to road as tough, while hailing Kipchoge, who seems to have excelled at it.
“To leave track to come to road, talent is very important. The talent I have as an elite athlete helped me to achieve good results on track and switching to road was hard and different.
“Coming into this stage I am in, I found Eliud, who had achieved better in it than [I have] on the road. And even before he became an Olympic champion, he had already won major marathons.
“It has been a difficult journey because the training routine is tedious, running 42 kilometres on a hard surface sometimes makes you suffer injury and you have health problems. And it’s not the same as track where you need speed, work out [and] it’s very short. [For the] marathon, you train for longer and at the end you have a different result which you didn’t target, but I want to achieve more while I am still at it.”
Bekele was left out of the Ethiopian team for the Rio Olympics, and his disappointment shows in every word.
“I was interested in running the Olympics but I wasn’t picked and I feel something I can’t explain inside me, maybe I will be able to reach the next Olympics with my performance, but I don’t know.
“My major focus would be on two things and that is to run fast and then to go to the Olympics; if I get those two then I would have reached the hallmark of my ambition.”
Of course it’s at the World Cross-country Championships that Bekele first made his name, winning both long- and short-course races between 2002-06 and then the long race at Edinburgh in 2008.
That said, the most decorated athlete over the hill and dale is lukewarm on his thoughts about the event, which just concluded in Kampala, Uganda over the weekend.
“It’s difficult to find very motivated and new athletes at this stage because there are not so many money races in Europe and in Africa, so you can’t be able to evaluate a strong talent.
“Since they moved the calendar from annual to biennial, not many are looking forward to it as before [as] you find less-motivated athletes because anticipation goes down. Having to wait for two years is not very encouraging.”
Bekele, now also a businessman, is running a multi-sport high-altitude training facility in Sululta, half an hour from Addis Ababa. The camp offers a six-lane, all-weather track and accommodation. Currently, Bekele has men’s Olympic 5,000m and 10,000m champion Mo Farah (pictured) as his guest.
“We have athletes from across the world who come and they achieve a lot from it, they break world records, become Olympic or world champions. Mo Farah trained there this year and last year and with his results, athletics in this camp and place benefited.
“We are improving by having different facilities and other sports like a football academy, they have a laboratory where they analyse everything and I think it’s having a daily improvement.”
His closing remarks echoed the importance of underlining great performance with clean sport.
“People have to know about sub-2 hour, that they are trying to help athletes reach their maximum without any drugs. It’s very important to help them to reach their limit by avoiding drug cheats. Everyone know this and knows there is no unacceptable means to improve performance.”
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