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In a year marked by so much by suffering and loss, Sunday's match-up between Kenenisa Bekele and Eliud Kipchoge at the Virgin Money London Marathon offers sports fans a much needed and truly exciting distraction. Not since the rivalry of Haile Gebrselassie and Paul Tergat has there been such a compelling marathon duel between a man from Ethiopia and a man from Kenya. Sunday's race, which will be run on a special, 19-lap course in St. James's Park and is only for elite athletes, has the feeling of a long-anticipated heavyweight boxing match.
Bekele, 38, and Kipchoge, 35, are the two fastest marathoners in history. Kipchoge is the world record-holder with a 2:01:39 personal best, and Bekele's best time is only two seconds slower. Between them they have completed 19 regulation marathons (Kipchoge has also done two unofficial time trials), posted 14 victories, and have run under 2:06:00 14 times (11 times sub-2:05:00 and six times sub-2:04). Kipchoge has recorded a remarkable 11 marathon wins in 12 starts; Bekele has three wins in nine starts.
Critically, in the four marathons where they have faced each other --Chicago, 2014; London, 2016; Berlin, 2017; and London, 2018-- Kipchoge has beaten Bekele on each occasion. In all four of those battles Kipchoge has prevailed by a wide margin; in Berlin in 2017 Bekele failed to finish.
But the beauty of marathon racing is that each race is unique and that anything can happen, especially on a completely new course. As both men spoke to the media today via a global Zoom press conference, they spoke with restrained confidence. Due to the pandemic, neither man has run a full, regulation marathon in over a year (although Kipchoge ran the INEOS 1:59 exhibition last October 12, where he became the first human to run 42.195 kilometers in under two hours in any conditions).
"Sunday will be a different race," Kipchoge said when asked how London --with a deep elite field-- would differ from his time trial nearly a year ago where his only competition came from the clock. He added: "I think the laps will be OK. There will be no problem as far as laps are concerned. I think we will compete in a good way."
Bekele, who came achingly close to Kipchoge's world record in Berlin one year and one day ago, was a little concerned about the criterium course, saying that the many turns might slow the field down.
"It's not an easy thing," he said, choosing his words carefully. "It's a long way. Maybe some way along the going you are losing speed because of curves." He added: "The only thing is we will see on Sunday."
While organizers have not released the official schedule for the pacemakers, they have been aggressive in dictating the pace in the past. In his four victories at London, Kipchoge has come through the first half in 62:19 (2015), 61:24 (2016), 61:00 (2018), and 61:37 (2019). He said today that a fast first half on Sunday would be fine with him.
"Actually, 61:00 will be OK," said Kipchoge with the knowing smile that has endeared him to millions of fans around the world.
Bekele, well aware that Kipchoge's love of a hard early tempo, nearly broke into a laugh. "At the moment, I'm not planning to set the pace," he said playfully. He continued: "Of course, more or less, I can guess. I am not sure about it. But I know the pace will be really fast for halfway. It's normal. I never seen that the pace was slowed down, especially in the London Marathon."
Neither man would engage in talk about the possibility of a world record, but surely that has to be a possibility. The temperature should be fine for fast running on Sunday, about 10C/50F, but there is a 50% chance of rain and a slick roadway would not be ideal.
Bekele and Kipchoge have so much in common. Both men have won Olympic gold medals, World Athletics Championships titles, and set world records. They both have Nike as their main sponsor, are part of the Dutch NN Running Team, and are represented by the same Dutch management company, Global Sports Communications headed by Jos Hermens. Their mutual admiration was fully on display today, and they understood the weight of the moment. This could be the last time they face each other in a marathon.
"Of course, as an athlete I have big respect for Eliud," Bekele said. "What he did (running a sub-two-hour marathon) is really a great thing for the sport." He continued: "Every time each of us we are motivating each other. I'm beating, sometimes he's beating. This is motivating for a long time. This keep us to stay long (in the sport)."
With such a deep field, neither Bekele nor Kipchoge may win Sunday's race. Athletes like Ethiopia's Mosinet Geremew (2:02:55 PB), Mule Wasihun (2:03:16), Shura Kitata (2:04:09), and Tamirat Tola (2:04:06), or Kenya's Marius Kipserum (2:04:11) could oust either man and take the title. Bekele's fitness is always the subject of speculation; he has twice dropped out of marathons (Dubai, 2017 and Berlin, 2017), and he has struggled with a knee issue for the last few years.
But like a great poker player, Kipchoge isn't showing his cards just yet. He hinted that his retirement might come after next year's Olympic Marathon where he hopes to defend his title, but only time will tell.
"Everything has a beginning and an end," he said cryptically. He added: "I'll still be around. I will call off the sport when the time comes."