You don’t win 20 individual global titles by setting the bar low. So it’s no surprise that when Kenenisa Bekele makes his 26.2 miles debut on 6 April at the Schneider Electric Marathon de Paris, an IAAF Gold Label Road Race, he is looking to make a big impact.
The dream, he says, would be to break the world record in his first marathon. “But I know that the Paris course is maybe not ideal for achieving this goal,” he adds. “In any case, I’ll do my best to get a good time. My dream has always been to be the best.”
There is little doubt that he is one of the greatest distance runners of all time. Winner of three Olympic titles, five World Championships titles and a staggering 11 individual senior gold medals at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships, Bekele’s name is already etched in the history books.
Having conquered the track, indoors and outdoors, as well as cross country, road running is the one area Bekele is yet to master.
This weekend’s race in the French capital could be the turning point.
Bekele has suffered from injuries and a lack of motivation in recent years, but training for the marathon has renewed his focus on the sport.
“I’ve changed some things,” said the 31-year-old. “I now run further and work less on my speed. I didn’t have the speed I needed to win at the cross-country race in Edinburgh in January. It was the result of a lack of specific training. I am really preparing for the marathon.
“I know that everyone will be looking at whether Mo Farah and I get off to a good start, but I don’t feel any particular pressure,” he added. “I’m preparing well and I’m not worried about anything at all.”
Bekele’s agent, Jos Hermens, is cautiously optimistic.
“He has been training very well for the past four or five months. But of course it’s the marathon, so the big quest mark is what will happen after 35km, especially as it’s his first marathon,” said Hermens.
“We’ve seen in the past with Paul Tergat and Haile Gebrselassie and other track runners that it takes five or six marathons before you reach your peak. They broke the world record in their fifth marathons, so it will be interesting to see what Kenenisa does.
“There’s a whole new generation of young athletes who have been running very fast in their first marathon, but they’ve never trained for a long time doing speed work for the track. Kenenisa will be another story, but he’s a very special athlete with so many world titles; he’s probably the greatest distance runner ever.
“The course record in Paris is 2:05:12. I’d be very happy if he broke that record and he’d come out of the race with a good feeling. But I think in his mind he’d like to run a bit faster.
“I told him it’s all about patience in the marathon so that’s going to be interesting because he’s not always the most patient. He’s a very smart and tactically he’s great, so I think he will listen to his body; he’s good at that.”
In his last road race before Paris, Bekele beat both Gebrselassie and double world and Olympic champion Mo Farah over the half marathon distance at the Great North Run. Many hoped Bekele would renew his rivalry with Farah at the London Marathon, but Hermens feels Paris would be more beneficial for Bekele.
“There was interest from London but Paris also showed a lot of interest and they were ready to build the race around him,” explained Hermens. “I think for a first marathon not to run around the best of all time is probably an advantage. I think he’d have been competitive in London, but now we can look at the race more to make it fit his style.”
Kiptoo the underdog
While much of the pre-race focus has been on Bekele’s debut marathon, Kenyan veteran Mark Kiptoo has kept a relatively low profile. In reality, he could be the favourite to win.
Like Bekele, Kiptoo is a former track specialist with PBs faster than 13 minutes and 27 minutes for 5000m and 10,000m respectively. He made his marathon debut in Frankfurt last October and finished second in a highly respectable 2:06:16.
With that experience in the bank – along with five more months of marathon training under his belt – Kiptoo could be the man to watch in Paris.
Ethiopia’s Tamirat Tola is another danger for Bekele. Like Kiptoo, Tola will also be contesting his second ever marathon. His debut performance came in Dubai earlier this year and his time of 2:06:17 is just one second shy of Kiptoo’s mark.
There will be more than just one Bekele in the race. Azmeraw Bekele – no relation to Kenenisa – finished one place behind Tola in Dubai earlier this year, setting a PB of 2:07:12. He warmed up for the Paris Marathon by running the half-marathon in the French capital one month ago, clocking 1:00:55.
That race was won by Mule Wasihum, who will be making his marathon debut on Sunday. Ethiopians Getachew Terfa and Limenih Getachew and Kenya’s Augustine Rono, all sub-2:08 athletes at their best, could also be in contention.
Kiros v Cheyech in women’s race
While Aheza Kiros has the fastest PB of the women’s field with her 2:24:30 clocking from the 2013 Dubai Marathon, Kenya’s Flomena Cheyech looks to be a more likely winner.
Kiros has never won a marathon, while Cheyech has won three of her past four races over the classic distances. Last year she won in Toronto and Vienna, setting a PB of 2:24:34 in the latter. More recently, she set a season’s best of 1:08:13 at the RAK Half Marathon.
Ethiopia’s Meskerem Assefa is another one to watch. The former middle-distance specialist competed in the 1500m at the 2011 IAAF World Championships and 2012 Olympics, but has since switched to the roads and clocked 2:25:17 in her first marathon.
Fellow Ethiopian ZemZem Ahmed also represented her country at the World Championships and Olympics. The former steeplechaser has a PB of 2:27:12.
Martha Komu won the Paris Marathon back in 2008 with a PB of 2:25:33 and went on to represent Kenya later that year at the Beijing Olympics, finishing fifth. Now running for France, the 30-year-old is the only former winner competing at the 2014 edition.
Kenya’s France-based Sarah Chepchirchir will be making her marathon debut in Paris. With a 1:08:07 half-marathon PB, she could spring a surprise.
Jon Mulkeen for the IAAF