In one of the most thrilling and surprising marathon performances of all time, Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele showed today, definitively, why he is the greatest distance runner to ever walk the earth. Trailing countryman Berhanu Legese by 13 seconds at 35 kilometers, Bekele rose from the dead to win the 2019 BMW Berlin Marathon in an astonishing 2:01:41, missing Eliud Kipchoge’s world record, set on this course a year ago, by just two seconds.
That Bekele won this race in comeback fashion served as an apt metaphor for his marathon career. After compiling an unparalleled resume on the track and in cross country — three Olympic gold medals, still-standing world records over 5,000 (12:37.35) and 10,000 (26:17.53) meters, 11 World Cross Country titles — Bekele has struggled to find the same level of consistency in the marathon. Prior to Berlin, he had completed just one marathon in the last 29 months, dropping out or withdrawing from four of his last six marathons. At 37, and three years removed from his last marathon victory, many had written Bekele off as a contender.Embed from Getty Images
Bekele has come from behind in some of his greatest victories — the 2013 Great North Run over Haile Gebrselassie and Mo Farah, and the 2016 Berlin Marathon against Wilson Kipsang — but never by this much, in a race in which he ran this fast. Bekele has amassed so many big wins in his career that it would be a disservice to immediately proclaim this as number one. But given the time he ran, and the fact that this race revived his career at age 37, there’s certainly a case for it.
The first sign that something special might be on came just 10k into the race, which the men’s leaders hit in 28:58 — two seconds faster than Kipchoge’s split a year ago. But considering Kipchoge ran a big negative split (61:06/60:33) in his world record, it was a little early to get excited.
The pace, however, remained hot through halfway, which the lead pack of five hit in 61:05 — one second faster than Kipchoge. In addition to Bekele and Legese, the 2019 Tokyo Marathon champ, the lead group also included Ethiopians Sisay Lemma (2:04:08 pb) and Leul Gebrselassie (2:04:02 in his debut in Dubai last year) and little-known Kenyan Jonathan Korir (2:06:51 pb). Either someone was going to run exceptionally fast, or there were going to be some serious blowups over the final 13.1 miles.
A 14:30 5k split took them to 25k in 1:12:30 (2:02:21 pace) and was enough to drop Gebrselassie, with Korir quickly following him off the back. The battle for the win was down to three Ethiopians.
Photo via NNRunning Team
Legese made the first major move, launching a surge at the drinks station just before 30 kilometers, and ripping off a 2:48 31st kilometer. That caused Bekele to drop, and he soon disposed of Lemma as well.
By 35k, it was clear why Lemma and Bekele had fallen off — Legese had just run his last 5k in a ridiculous 14:09 (1:59:24 marathon pace). That gave him a 13-second lead over Bekele at 35k (who had passed Lemma for second), and though Bekele had lost ground, he wasn’t slowing down: his 14:20 split from 30k to 35k had actually been his fastest of the race to that point (14:25 is 2:01:30 pace).
The next 5k was where the race was won and lost. As Legese began to pay the price for his surge, Bekele was only gaining strength and began to close the gap rapidly. Just before 38 kilometers, he blew by Legese, but Bekele wanted more than the win. After splitting 14:15 from 35k to 40k, Bekele hit 40 kilometers in 1:55:30, two seconds faster than Kipchoge’s split from the previous year. Suddenly, the world record was very much on the table.
And Bekele knew it. As he battled injuries during his marathon career, the one thing that kept him going was the pursuit of the world record and his unprecedented quest to simultaneously hold world records at 5k, 10k, and the marathon. After Kipchoge’s reset the standard with his unfathomable 2:01:39 in Berlin last year, those dreams appeared to have been shattered. Yet here Bekele was, battling history.
The Ethiopian gritted his teeth and rocked his head from side to side, checking his watch as he powered forward with everything he had. The record was within touching distance.
As he ran under the Brandenburg Gate with just a quarter mile to the finish, it was clearly going to be close. Bekele was giving it everything, sprinting with all he had for one more world record.
Bekele 1:37 into the race could not even be seen (he is s behind the pace car)
But it was not to be. Bekele ran his final 2.195k to the finish in 6:11 — four seconds slower than Kipchoge in 2018 — to clock 2:01:41. It was a magnificent performance, one that makes him 67 seconds faster than any human in history not named Kipchoge, but it was not enough for a world record on this day.
Legese crossed second in 2:02:48 to become the third-fastest man in history and the fastest non-winner, with Lemma third in 2:03:36. American Matt Llano ran a PR of 2:11:14 to finish 14th.
The women’s race in Berlin came down to a sprint between Ethiopians Ashete Bekere and Mare Dibaba, the 2015 world champ and Olympic bronze medalist, with Bekere prevailing in 2:20:14 to Dibaba’s 2:20:21. American Sara Hall ran a 4+ minute personal best of 2:22:16 to claim fifth (and sixth on the all-time US list), while fellow American Sally Kipyego ran a PR of her own, 2:25:10, for 7th.
QT: Bekele is most definitely back — what a turnaround
Bekele’s last marathon triumph came in 2016, when he won Berlin in come-from-behind style in 2:03:03, just six seconds off the then world record of 2:02:57.
Since then, Bekele has largely struggled in the marathon, particularly of late.
His struggles were such that he dropped down from the World Marathon Major circuit to running the Amsterdam Marathon last October, where he bizarrely drop out in the final km. His agent Jos Hermens then said, “He will be ready for a good spring marathon, I’m confident. I’m convinced he’s still ready to run fast times.”
There was no spring marathon for Bekele (he signed up for Tokyo in March, but withdrew prior to the race due to injury). When he was announced as a late entrant to Berlin this year, it turned some heads; surely Bekele would not run Berlin unless he thought he was ready to go fast. But no one was expecting him to run this fast. The press release put out by Berlin two days ago said, “an attack on the world record has not been a subject for discussion” and mentioned the previous 2019 world best of 2:02:37 by Kipchoge in London as a possible target.
A truly remarkable run by Bekele today, whose PRs now read 12:37, 26:17, 2:01:41.
Bekele’s recent marathons
September 2016 Berlin 2:03:03 1st
Jan 2017 Dubai DNF
April 2017 London 2:05:57 2nd
Sept 2017 Berlin DNF
April 2018 London 2:08:53 6th
Oct 2018 Amsterdam DNF
QT: The marathon has officially gone insane
As brilliant as Bekele was today — and as brilliant as Kipchoge has been over the past five years — we have to talk about the elephant in the room: Nike’s Vaporfly shoes. When the shoes came out in 2017 (some of its athletes ran in prototype versions in 2016), Nike boasted a 4% improvement in running economy. Whether you believe the advantage is that large or not (a NY Times analysis pointed to a 1% gain; Kipchoge’s record is 1.2% faster than the previous record), it’s undeniable that runners wearing Vaporflys have run faster than anyone else in history. The five fastest marathons of all time have all been run within the last 13 months, and every single one of them came in Vaporflys.
|1||Eliud Kipchoge||2:01:39||2018 Berlin||Yes|
|2||Kenenisa Bekele||2:01:41||2019 Berlin||Yes|
|3||Eliud Kipchoge||2:02:37||2019 London||Yes|
|4||Berhanu Legese||2:02:48||2019 Berlin||Yes|
|5||Mosinet Geremew||2:02:55||2019 London||Yes|
QT: Sign us up for Bekele vs. Kipchoge at the 2020 Olympics
In 2016, Kenenisa Bekele was upset to be left off the Ethiopian Olympic team in the marathon, and we found out why when he ran 2:03:03 to win Berlin that fall as Kipchoge claimed Olympic gold in Rio.
After today’s race, we need to see Bekele — the overall distance running GOAT — and Kipchoge — the marathon GOAT — square off in Tokyo for the Olympic title.
On paper, it’s a mouthwatering showdown, but there is one big caveat: Bekele needs to be healthy and in good shape. Kipchoge is an ironman — he’s never injured and runs two marathons a year like clockwork. And when he runs them, he always wins.
Bekele? Not so much. In his two marathons before Berlin, he dropped out of Amsterdam last fall and withdrew from Tokyo in March 2019. At his best, one would think, he may be able to challenge Kipchoge in a marathon. But it hasn’t happened yet — he’s 0-4 in his marathon career against Kipchoge. Maybe that changes in Tokyo, maybe it doesn’t, but we want to see the two race again.
QT: Sara Hall, Olympic contender
Sara Hall winning the 2019 USATF 20-K Championships at the Faxon Law New Haven Road Race in 1:06:47; the tapeholders were Toni Harp (left) mayor of New Haven and Christina Campora (right) of Faxon Law (photo by Jane Monti for Race Results Weekly)
Sara Hall has had a great career. She has won national titles on the roads at the mile, 5k, 10k, 20k, and marathon. But prior to today, she had never done two big things in her career: a) run a really fast marathon and b) make a World/Olympic team on the track or the marathon.
She can now cross off the fast marathon as today’s run makes her the sixth fastest American ever. She now is a serious contender for the US Olympic marathon team, though she will face a stacked American women’s field at the Trials. However, before then Hall is slated to run the NYC Marathon on November 3. Hall may be tempted to skip New York to get ready for the Trials, but she has always recovered well and raced a lot, so we bet we’ll see her in NY in the fall.
1 Bekere, Ashete (ETH) 2:20:14
2 Dibaba, Mare (ETH) 2:20:21
3 Chepyego, Sally (KEN) 2:21:06
4 Tola, Helen (ETH) 2:21:36
5 Hall, Sara (USA) 2:22:16