If Kenenisa Bekele is to be believed - and who wouldn’t? – come 8:30am Gulf time on Friday (20), he will be the world record holder for the marathon when the Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon, an IAAF Gold Label Race, concludes.
By its nature, a world record is not an easy thing to achieve, or even to predict. And most athletes are loath to venture such a forecast. So when Bekele told this morning's press conference ahead of the race's 18th edition that he was confident that he could beat Dennis Kimetto's 2:02:57 mark on Friday, there were more than a few raised eyebrows.
Such a feat would mean that the 34-year-old Ethiopian would be the only man in history to concurrently hold the world records for 5000 and 10,000m on the track, and 42.195km on the road.
Bekele: 'I plan to run the world record'
Until three months ago it seemed as if Bekele’s latter-day marathon career was not going to match his earlier superlative efforts in cross-country and track running. But then, almost out of the blue, he not only beat former world record holder and Olympic medallist, Wilson Kipsang in October's Berlin Marathon, he won in 2:03:03, just six seconds off the world record set by Kipsang’s Kenyan colleague, Dennis Kimetto. So when you’re talking to a man who has also won three Olympic golds, 18 world titles on grass, tartan and tarmac, setting a handful of world records en route, you lower the eyebrows and listen in, intently.
“The marathon needs a long time to develop, you need experience,” said Bekele, referring to a no more than adequate introduction to the longer distance, which saw his best time after four marathons (in addition to a DNF here in Dubai two years ago) prior to Berlin sit at 2:05:04, from his debut in Paris in 2014.
“After two years, I feel that I am a marathoner now,” he continued. “This (Dubai) is a similar flat course to Berlin, and I think I can do better. I plan to run the world record."
“Of course, it’s a race, so you can’t say for sure, and it depends on the conditions. But I was very disappointed not to finish here two years ago. My plan in Berlin was to run a fast time. I was focused on a personal best and the Ethiopian record (2:03:59 by his illustrious predecessor, Haile Gebrselassie). Dubai is a fast course, I’m planning to run the world record, and I’m confident.”
Asked about the extent to which the combat with Kipsang in Berlin produced his fast time, he said, “He was more experienced than me, and he knew the course. He helped me a lot. Without him, maybe I would have run 2:04 or faster. But I can run fast without him.”
His manager, Jos Hermens concurs.
“We only waited a little while after Berlin, to see how Kenenisa recovered, before we decided to come to Dubai," said Hermens, a former world record himself in the 20,000m and One Hour events.
"He is quite confident that he can break the record. He’s 34 now, he’s got to take every chance.”
Hefty bonus on offer
If he does take that chance, it should increase his bank balance considerably, by nearly half a million dollars. Billed as the world’s richest marathon, Dubai pays out $200,000 to the men’s and women’s winners, and Dubai Holdings, the national investment company adds a $250,000 bonus for a world record.
Connerton is hopeful that his efforts, which have seen the race go from 120 contestants in its inaugural edition in 2000 to 30,000 participants (mostly in the 10km) this year, will finally see the imprimatur of a world record.
"We’ve has some great races and super-fast times over the years, particularly since the Standard Chartered sponsorship began 13 years ago; and since everyone in the Dubai hierarchy, from the royal family to the Dubai Sport Council to Dubai Holdings have been involved, and Kenenisa’s friend and countryman, Haile Gebrselassie was foremost among them (with victories in 2008-10). But we’re hoping that Kenenisa can finally put the icing on the cake for us.”
Bekele himself admits that he won’t be alone at the front, in particular his colleague, 2014 winner Tsegaye Mekonnen (2:04:32) is also expected to enjoy the impetus that the pacemakers will provide. Another Ethiopian, Dino Sefir (2:04:50), is also coming back to the form which took him to second in 2012. He won in both Ottawa and Barcelona in 2016. The quality field includes seven men, all from Ethiopia, who have run faster than 2:07.
Demise and Melkamu lead women's field
In the early days of women’s official long distance running, Ingrid Kristiansen of Norway held the three records --5000m, 10,000m and marathon-- from 1986 to 1993. It is a measure of how much women’s distance running has moved on that Friday’s favourites and former high placers here in Dubai are not among the absolute world’s best, but have run faster than the Norwegian’s 2:21:06 in London 1985. But not by much! Shure Demise has run 2:20:59, and her Ethiopian colleague, Meselech Melkamu has run 2:21:01. In all, the field includes eight women with sub-2:25 lifetime bests.
Pat Butcher (organisers) for the IAAF
Kenenisa Bekele, ETH, 2:03:03
Tsegaye Mekonnen, ETH, 2:04:32
Dino Sefir, ETH, 2:04:50
Sisay Lemma, ETH, 2:05:16
Mule Wasihun, ETH, 2:05:44
Abera Kuma, ETH, 2:05:56
Tamirat Tola, ETH, 2:06:17
Solomon Deksisa, ETH, 2:06:22
Raji Assefa, ETH, 2:06:24
Chele Dechasa, ETH, 2:06:33
Limenih Getachew, ETH, 2:06:49
Azmeraw Bekele, ETH, 2:07:12
Berhanu Legese, ETH, Debut
Shure Demise, ETH, 2:20:59
Meselech Melkamu, ETH, 2:21:01
Koren Jelela, ETH, 2:22:43
Tadelech Bekele, ETH, 2:22:51
Yebrgual Melese, ETH, 2:23:23
Worknesh Edesa, ETH, 2:24:04
Shuko Genemo, ETH, 2:24:31
Ruti Aga, ETH, 2:24:41
Belaynesh Oljira, ETH, 2:25:01
Roza Dereje, ETH, 2:26:18
Worknesh Degefa, ETH, Debut