The New York City Marathon returns on Sunday following a two-year hiatus, and at the front of the field, legendary distance runner Kenenisa Bekele is primed to “make more history” in his storied career.
Bekele, a three-time Olympic gold medalist over 5,000 and 10,000 meters, is the headline name competing in the men’s elite field in New York.
With his only previous marathon in the United States a fourth-place finish in Chicago seven years ago, the Ethiopian is hungry for success as he prepares to take to the streets of the Big Apple.
“Really, I wanted to have a good result in the USA, that’s why I chose the New York marathon,” Bekele told reporters this week.
“The New York marathon is big publicity and a really big marathon race. To achieve a good result in this marathon would be perfect, and for me, it’s also really good to make more history in sports.”
Bekele has a point to prove after a disappointing outing six weeks ago at the Berlin Marathon — the race at which he came within two seconds of Eliud Kipchoge’s world record time two years ago.
Despite expectations that he could challenge Kipchoge’s record of two hours, one minute and 39 seconds in Berlin this year, Bekele says he fell foul to a poor night’s sleep as he finished third, more than a minute behind winner Guye Adola.
“I was not ready for that race,” Bekele explained. “A few weeks before the race, I was not really confident. It’s a little bit tough for me because the day before also I couldn’t sleep well, I really had bad luck the day before in the night. That also made me very tired.
“I’ve recovered well … At this moment, I’m really strong. I hope I’ll achieve a good result on Sunday.”
For race organizers, who called off last year’s New York City Marathon amid the pandemic, it is a boon to have a figure like Bekele on the start line on Sunday.
On top of his three Olympic gold medals — including a double in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters at Beijing 2008 — and one silver medal, he also claimed five world athletics championship titles between 2003 to 2009.
Bekele’s 5,000m world record stood for 16 years before it was broken by Uganda’s Joshua Cheptegei last year, while his 10,000m record stood for 15 before also being broken last year by Cheptegei.
Many consider Bekele to be the greatest male distance runner of all time, such has been his supremacy across multiple distances over the past two decades; others point towards Kenya’s Kipchoge, who has been so dominant over the 26.2 miles of a marathon and is the first man to break the distance’s two-hour barrier, albeit in unofficial conditions.
“I still feel that I am the best and better than anyone,” Bekele told Sports Illustrated in August after it was announced that he would make his debut in New York. “I think every athlete and others should think like that.”
Having struggled with injuries and form in recent years, Bekele now has a second opportunity to win a major marathon in the US.
There is little chance that he will be able to come close to his best marathon time in New York; unlike Berlin, the course, which undulates through the city’s five boroughs, rarely produces fast performances.
“I know the course is tough and there are also no pacemakers in the race. It’s more about concentration and a tactical race,” said Bekele.
He will be up against the Netherlands’ Adbi Nageeye, who won the silver medal at the Olympics in Sapporo three months ago, and the half marathon world record holder Kibiwott Kandie of Kenya, who is making his marathon debut.
The women’s race is headlined by Kenya’s Peres Jepchirchir, the gold medalist at the Olympics. She will be joined by the USA’s Olympic bronze medalist Molly Seidel.
Another athlete to keep an eye on is US star Shalane Flanagan as she attempts to run six marathons in 42 days. Having already completed marathons in Berlin, London, Chicago, Boston and Portland — all between times of 2:35:14 and 2:46:39 — Flanagan will aim to complete her challenge in New York.
And as for Bekele, like so many other runners who will take to the start line on Sunday, he’s grateful to be able to race in New York following the pandemic and last year’s cancellation.
“To see the people of New York participate in this race again — to see this for me is fantastic,” he said. “I want to wish all participants good luck.”
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