Out of nowhere, the gulf between Eliud Kipchoge and another top marathoner has shrunk to just two seconds: On Sunday in Berlin, 37-year-old Kenenisa Bekele ran 2:01:41 to miss Kipchoge's world record by a slim two seconds. Bekele nearly eclipsed the record that Kipchoge set last year on the very same course.
To call Bekele’s time a shock would be to undersell its randomness. The Ethiopian is one of the greatest distance runners in history by any metric — he has 20 global gold medals to prove as much — but a 2:01 marathon was thought to only be Kipchoge territory. Add in the fact that Bekele hadn’t won a marathon in three years and this result is truly mystifying. That previous victory was his 2:03:03 personal best from Berlin in 2016.
Now it is Kipchoge and Bekele in the esteemed 2:01 club, with more than a minute between them and the next best marathoner at 2:02:55.
Bekele hit halfway in 61:05, a second faster than Kipchoge split a year ago when he set the record. Bekele can credit countryman Birhanu Legese for pacing much of his effort on Sunday, as Legese was unbelievably 13 seconds up on Bekele at 35K — just over four miles to go. But the 5,000m and 10,000m world record holder caught his challenger at 38K, and by 40K he had put a comfortable 30 seconds on Legese.
Bekele’s second half was 60:36, three seconds off the transcendent final 13.1 miles produced by Kipchoge in 2018.
The timing of this performance — the 2019 IAAF World Championships are going on right now — and Bekele’s recent struggles in the marathon meant that such a run has blindsided the running world. Bekele's previous attempt at the distance, nearly a year ago in Amsterdam, saw him drop out with just minutes until the finish line. He hadn’t raced at all in 2019 before Sunday.
With just 13 days until the Ineos 1:59 Challenge in Vienna, we won’t have to wait long for Kipchoge’s response to this challenge. Of course, his run in Austria won’t be world record-eligible as he tries to become the first man to break two hours in the marathon, but he’ll run for history knowing that his title as the best marathoner in the world just became a lot less certain.
I don’t think anyone saw that coming on Sunday.
In the women’s race, Ashete Bekere of Ethiopia ran 2:20:14 to get the win. Mare Dibaba finished second in 2:20:21. American Sara Hall ran 2:22:16 — a personal best by over four minutes to place fifth. Hall’s time moves her to sixth all-time on the U.S. women’s marathon list behind Deena Kastor, Jordan Hasay, Shalane Flanagan, Joan Benoit Samuelson, and Amy Cragg. Sara Hall is scheduled to run the New York City Marathon on November 3.
Fellow American Sally Kipyego was seventh in 2:25:10.