Double Olympic and world championship track star Kenenisa Bekele will still be a relative newcomer to the distance when he runs the Dubai Marathon on Friday, but he’s no stranger to mastering new challenges. And if his racing history and that of former marathon world record-holders Paul Tergat and Haile Gebrselassie are any indication, the 32-year-old Bekele could be coming into his own at the 26.2-mile distance.
In 2001, the Ethiopian was a junior champion and a senior 4K medalist at the world cross country championships, but had less success on the track. The following year, he won both senior titles in cross country; while on the track, he had a personal best of 13:13.33 for 5,000m from 2001 (he ran 13:26.58 in 2002).
That all led him to question his abilities on the oval.
“It was a bit challenging,” Bekele recalled in a recent interview. “A decade ago, when I was young and hadn’t accumulated much experience, I think that based on what others said, I wondered about it: When some people said I wasn’t suited to the track, only to cross country, and when my track results were repeatedly not good enough, the thought, ‘Is this true? Am I really not good on the track?’ used to enter my mind. But it’s something that changes with hard work.”
A former world champion at the junior level on the track, Bekele put in a concerted effort to master the competition at the next level.
“It takes many different kinds of training in combination,” Bekele said. “Speed, hills, intervals, endurance. As I was young, it may also have been a question of strength and of age. Once my body began to align with others’ and I began to compete and I started to challenge others at the senior level, it didn’t take me long.”
Indeed, it didn’t. Bekele won the 2003 world championships 10,000m, leading his predecessor, Gebrselassie, and teammate Sileshi Sihine to an Ethiopian sweep of the podium, before taking 5,000m bronze at the same championships. Having earned an additional seven outdoor world or Olympic golds on the track, Bekele remains the holder of the world records at the two distances, 12:37.35 and 26:17.53—having first broken the records in 2004.
Bekele knows the marathon is also something to be conquered.
“I’m learning the marathon,” he said. “There’s nothing that can’t be changed with hard work.”
After a 1:00:09 half-marathon victory over Mo Farah and Gebrselassie in September 2013, Bekele ventured into the marathon in 2014. He won his debut in Paris in May in a course-record 2:05:04, before taking fourth in 2:05:51 in Chicago in October.
He has put each of those experiences to use.
“I’ve learned from my races in Paris and Chicago,” he said. “Coming to the marathon, you race with the distance itself. It doesn’t matter if there are strong competitors or not. In a marathon, anything can challenge you. Even the distance itself can challenge you, because it’s not like 5,000, 10,000. Inside 42K, anything can happen.”
Of his debut race, he said, “I thought I’d run a better time, but around 30K, I felt muscle cramps. I experienced that in the absence of any fatigue, and that sparked some anxiety in me. In other words, what I had envisioned in my mind I would accomplish, my heart could only contemplate, but my body impeded.”
The last pacemaker in Paris dropped out at 25K, and Bekele, who was leading along with compatriot Tamirat Tola at 27K, pulled away. “I thought that if I’m going to lead, I’d rather be alone than pace others, so I went for that,” he said. “Even though I succeeded, I think that disoriented my muscles a bit.”
One lesson learned. “I should not do that and I should proceed with patience, regardless of who is there, and what happens,” Bekele said.
Another lesson, Bekele said, regarded his race preparation. “Maybe I over-trained,” he said. “I lost a little bit of energy and strength.” So before his next race in the fall of 2014, he made some changes—some of which he would later come to revise again. “I reduced the pace, speed and some kilometers. From about 180-200 a week to about 160-180.”
In preparation for Chicago, Bekele often trained either with his brother Tariku and a pacemaker, or alone. He worked with an Ethiopian trainer, Mersha Asrat.
In Chicago, Bekele fell off the pace by the 21st mile, ultimately finishing behind a Kenyan trio led by Eliud Kipchoge.
“After 30K, they gradually increased the pace,” said Bekele. “My body couldn’t accept that pace, and I went on my own pace. I believe that can happen in a marathon; it’s not a 10K or a 5K. But I would have liked to have registered better results. Those guys who beat me did so because it’s a marathon, whereas in other events, they might not have had the chance. But because it’s a new event, it happens.”
“He needs a few more races, I think, a few marathons, to learn about marathons and also about marathon training,” Bekele’s manager, Jos Hermens, who also manages Gebrselassie, said at the time. “Both Haile and (Paul) Tergat, they got the world record after their fifth marathon. Tergat, in his fifth marathon, ran [just under] 2:08.”
Bekele had been concerned about jet lag even before race day, and he felt its effects during Chicago. “I didn’t feel good from the start,” he said. “There was the time difference; I hadn’t slept well. I arrived Thursday; Friday, I was very tired, and after Friday midnight, I couldn’t sleep, both Friday and Saturday night. All of that added together meant my results weren’t good.”
But he was also keenly aware of other issues to be addressed. “I also have to revise my training, I have to assess everything and take lessons from the past,” he said at the time. “Going forward, I have to take the time to follow a well-formulated program.”
“Kenenisa didn’t do enough long runs, in my opinion,” Hermens said. “He did only one 40K, not enough if you come from the track. The problem is he still has speed in mind. What he should do is run three hours, but easy—you know, just fat-burning. He found it boring and difficult. [He should] just go in the countryside, run two hours easy, then one hour fast.”
Bekele concurred with Hermens’ assessment. “Yes, the marathon requires long runs and long hours,” he said. “I was finding it boring at times, and I don’t think I did enough. There are times you need to do runs of over 2 ½ hours. That I didn’t do.”
Ahead of Bekele’s third outing in Dubai, a major change that manager and athlete implemented was to recruit the coaching expertise of Italian Renato Canova, who has trained Kenyan Moses Mosop, among others. “My training has gone well,” said Bekele, whose preparation has involved 10 percent fitness and 10 percent strength work, with the rest of his program devoted to endurance work and running on roads and in the woods.
“I’ve certainly worked hard, with no time off during the holiday period,” Bekele said.
Bekele has the Dubai course record of 2:04:23, set in 2012 by Ethiopian Ayele Abshero, as a target.
“He is better prepared than before,” Hermens said. “If he runs a low 2:04, improving by around 1 minute, that would be fine.”
“Of course, when you are participating in a race, every athlete comes thinking to win, to succeed,” said Bekele in acknowledgement of the challenge he will face. “I have to be ready for the race and be confident to make history here, but of course, it’s a race. You can’t be 100 percent confident that ‘I will win this race,’ because in that case, it’s not a race.”
The Dubai field features six men who have run under 2:06, including three Ethiopians who have run under 2:05, all of them primarily road runners: 2013 Boston champion Lelisa Desisa, who won Dubai in his marathon debut in 2013 in 2:04:45; his Dubai runner-up Berhanu Shiferaw, who ran 2:04:48; and 2012 Chicago runner-up Feyisa Lilesa (2:04:52).
“Their time is faster than my time,” noted Bekele, who said of Desisa, “He has shown himself to be a very strong athlete with great experience in marathons.”
Bekele is building his own experience in the new event and perfecting his transition from the shorter track distances he dominated for years. “When they come from the track to the marathon, nobody achieved a good time in their first marathon or second marathon,” Bekele said. “Maybe it needs time and experience, the body needs experience. Everything in combination is needed.”
His next step is Friday. “I’m feeling confident, I’m feeling happy,” he said. “So for Friday, I’m ready for success.”