Three years of nagging injuries dented Kenenisa Bekele’s invincibility, reducing him to an also ran on the world stage and giving cause to the theory that the Ethiopian superstar had come to the end of his career.
But with a victory at the 2013 Great North Run last September – his debut at the Half-marathon distance – he stunned the naysayers and handed the reigning World and Olympic 5000m and 10,000m champion Mo Farah a rare defeat.
Bekele, 31, clearly has more in the tank and is now setting his sights on running his first Marathon. Odds are he will line up in London next spring, likely the only event that could afford his price tag. No small measures for him; he has lofty ambitions.
“If I am going to do a Marathon, of course, I want to win,” he says. “I want to have a good result. I am not going to run to lose or just for a bad result. Everybody, not only me, feels that when you are going to compete, you are going to try to win the race.
“Of course, if I train hard I will do a fast time. But I can't say I will run 2:03, 2:05 or 2:06. I cannot say. The only thing is I have to prepare myself and train hard until I finish a Marathon. I have to motivate myself to train hard to be ready to put myself in a good position. We will see in the end what will be the result.”
With the calf injury behind him, Bekele has implemented a training program that has much more volume than when he set the current World 5000m and 10,000m records. Like his compatriots he is up at the crack of dawn running in his favourite areas: Sululta where he has a resort hotel complete with a 400m track and in Sendafa, where the elevation is 2700m above sea level.
Most significantly he reveals he has included a three-hour run each week in preparation for the Marathon.
Much of his training is done with younger brother Tariku, the 2012 Olympic 10,000m bronze medallist. But Tariku is not yet committed to the Marathon, so the elder Bekele continues to run alone many mornings. Meanwhile his manager, Jos Hermens, continues to plot the debut that running fans around the world are eagerly awaiting.
A rematch of the Bekele-Farah rivalry is among the storylines that could potentially develop if Bekele accepts London’s offer. He is a proud man and knows that at his best there are few who can match him. The Marathon is another beast, however.
“I don't know (where I will run my first Marathon),” he says. “Of course there is respect for my past results and I should be paid as one of the good paid athletes. My results should allow me to join these athletes. Of course, I don't want to crack my bones over there for small money.”
Bekele laughs at this expression. A very shy man, he has a good sense of humour when he relaxes and trusts someone.
Since the Great North Run he has been reading up on the Marathon event. Perhaps it is his pride, but he won’t approach other athletes for advice. Instead he reads online stories about marathon runners and their various exploits.
“Some marathoners complain that until 30km it is easy,” he says. “Some of them say after 35km, some of them they say after 38km, some of them after 40km. This is feedback I get from different athletes. Everyone can have a different capacity.
“It is not easy (to choose). London is also a fast course and 2:05 is not easy. The only thing is New York is not as fast as other Marathons. Berlin is a fast course and Rotterdam in the Netherlands is fast, and Dubai is a fast course. So I don't know where I can join.”
The Great North Run proved his tactical sense is still ever so sound. His countryman Haile Gebrselassie set the early pace with Farah and after about six miles Bekele dropped back and looked like he was finished. Immediately, Farah and Gebrselassie increased the tempo to try to bury him, which is exactly what Bekele had wanted.
“You know, sometimes, when you are running together nobody makes the race faster,” he explains with a smile. “Nobody wants to pace. I don't want to pace; maybe Mo Farah and Haile do not want to pace. That’s why I went a little bit behind, maybe thirty or forty or fifty meters. Maybe they will think Kenenisa is tired and they will try to drop me.
“The pace picked up. So this is the tactic to improve the pace. So they did it. They did it like I thought. When I came back after five kilometres and I reached them, maybe they were nervous and shocked. They were watching me. Haile was looking over at me two or three times. Farah was checking me all the time.
“After that I didn't want to keep the pace slow. I had already planned to go with one mile left. That was my plan before the race. That’s why I did it. When I picked up the pace on the downhill, there was a little bit of a gap between me and Mo and I increased the pace.
“In the end he tried to catch me but there was no way he would catch me. No way. It’s a calculation. It’s like science, If they increase the pace, I can increase the pace no problem.”
Looking as fit as ever, Bekele these days spends a lot of time at his newly opened 50-room hotel in Addis. The Kenenisa Hotel, as it is named, is only five minutes, on a good day, from Bole International Airport and he is busy marketing the property. As one would expect, whenever he walks through the front door his staff take note and guests stare at the man who is an icon in Ethiopia.
The opening of the hotel was a dream for Bekele. A successful Marathon debut is another important target. It remains to be seen how fast the fastest 5,000m and 10,000m runner in history will eventually run the classic distance. Pretty fast is the likely result.
Paul Gains for the IAAF