Kenenisa Bekele wants to cement his reputation as the greatest distance runner of all time by breaking the world marathon record in London on Sunday. While the Ethiopian has publicly played down his chances of breaking Dennis Kimetto’s mark of 2hr 2min 57sec, set in Berlin in 2014, the Observer has learned that he has asked race organisers for pacemakers to bring him to halfway in around 61:30 – on world-record pace.
The 34-year-old holds the 5,000m and 10,000m world records, as well as eight Olympic and world titles, and is hopeful of adding the marathon record to that list having recovered from back, calf and hip injuries sustained when he was trampled by runners after a fall at the start of the Dubai marathon in January.
Bekele says he is willing to train with Mo Farah if, as expected, the Briton retires from the track to compete in next year’s London marathon. “He stayed at the sports camp at my hotel in Ethiopia for two months earlier this year and I have met him several times and spoken to him over the phone,” Bekele said. “We don’t run together, but we think we may train together maybe in the future, when he maybe starts the marathon.”
Bekele diplomatically refused to compare his achievements with those of Farah, who has now won back-to-back Olympic 5,000m and 10,000m titles. “Everyone has their own background and results and this means I cannot look down at Mo Farah,” he said. “What he’s done is great. He won Olympics and world championships so I have respect, and comparing us at this stage is not possible.”
But, pointedly referencing Farah’s disappointing 2:08 at his only attempt at a marathon, Bekele said: “We will see what he achieves over a marathon. It is not enough running 2:08 in a marathon – it’s too much far from a fast time.”
For now, however, Bekele’s thoughts on solely on this year’s race. He is the fastest man in the field, with a personal best of 2:03:03, set in Berlin last year, but he knows he faces a tough challenge with five other athletes having run under 2:06. They include his fellow Ethiopian Feyisa Lilesa, who won an Olympic silver medal in Rio, and the talented 21-year-old Kenyan Daniel Wanjiru. Another one to watch could be debutant Bedan Karoki, who has a half-marathon PB of 59:10.
The women’s race looks even more stacked with the favourite, Mary Keitany – who has won two London marathon titles – facing a host of top-class runners, including the 2015 winner, Tigist Tufa, the 2015 world champion and Olympic bronze medallist, Mare Dibaba, the two-times Berlin winner, Florence Kiplagat, and the 2010 London champion, Aselefech Mergia.
Two track greats have legitimate chances of victory, too – Tirunesh Dibaba, who has eight Olympic and world titles at 5,000m and 10,000m, and the Rio Olympics 5,000m gold medallist, Vivian Cheruiyot, who is making her marathon debut.
The absence of last year’s winner, Jemima Sumgong – provisionally suspended this month after testing positive for EPO in an out-of-competition test – inevitably casts a shadow on the race. Keitany said: “I was shocked at the news. There is a saying: ‘In every maggot there is a madman or a madwoman,’ so in sport there is those who are cheaters and those who are clean. Most of us in Kenya and Ethiopia are talented by nature and I want to end my career clean. I don’t want such a mess to fall on me.”
Cheruiyot said: “In my life I’ve never used anything. I remember when we were in Rio we were so happy for her, because it was the first gold for Kenya, so it’s really disappointing. It’s so painful to run with somebody who is using extra when you are using your own energy. Jemima knows where she went for that injection. She can’t say she didn’t know. I’m so disappointed. But we love sport, and we love clean sport. It’s so embarrassing.”
Another Kenyan, Abel Kirui, one of the favourites for the men’s race, told the Observer that it was time for life bans and much greater out-of-competition testing in Kenya. “We say that Kenya is the powerhouse of athletics, so it is a shame that these cheats bring a bad image to the nation,” he said. “So if someone cheats, they should be out of sport for the rest of their lives.
“But it is important to know that not all of us are doping. Sometimes Wada [the World Anti-Doping Agency] or the World Marathon Majors conduct random tests, but I want there to be more of it. We need to be tested at least once a month to help clean up this mess. It is expensive I know, but as a professional athlete I want it to help clean up the sport.”
Jo Pavey will carry the support of the home crowd as she tries to qualify for her sixth world championships at the age of 43. Pavey, who has not run a marathon since 2011, will earn an automatic place in this summer’s championships if she is one of the first two Britons home and finishes under 2:36. Charlotte Purdue and Aly Dixon are expected to her closest challengers.