Kenenisa Bekele doesn’t need a marathon world record to prove he is one of the greatest long-distance runners of all time. But one thing is for sure, he won’t feel “fulfilled” until he has one.
The 34-year-old may be closer to the end of a glittering career which has yielded 5,000m and 10,000m world records and three gold medals than the start, though you wouldn’t know it.
For the Ethiopian star, who says he is feeling in the best physical condition he has ever been in, chasing the history books over the 42.195km distance has turned into a new obsession and fresh chapter since his switch to the distance three years ago.
Bekele breezed to the Berlin Marathon title in September, recording a personal best and second-fastest marathon run of all time: two hours, three minutes and three seconds. Quite remarkable.
It was just a narrow six seconds short of Dennis Kimetto’s record set on the same course in 2014 and Bekele believes he can eclipse the Kenyan’s feat and claim the lucrative $250,000 bonus prize on offer, in addition to the regular $200,000 winner’s cheque. It’s certainly do-able on the flat and fast course of the world’s richest race, Friday’s Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon.
“Of course I am believing in myself, that I can break the world record in Dubai,” says Bekele, who limped out of his only appearance in the city in 2015 because of injury.
“My confidence is 100 per cent but of course you never know, anything can happen in a race and in marathon running – in a race you have to be confident and believe in yourself.
“If you’re asking me, without a marathon world record – maybe my goal wasn’t fulfilled. If I don’t achieve this record, it’s not 100 per cent for me.
“Every athlete in history wants to be an Olympic, World champion and record holder. You feel something if you do this…if I do this my happiness is over.”
He continues: “I believe it but this is a competition, I’m not competing alone, many athletes are out there too, plus the weather, wind conditions, these may change my plans.
“I can’t get any experience from that (my last time here), because I was injured.
“I wasn’t successful and I’m ready to race in Dubai again, that’s why I’ve come back now, fit and healthy.”
Bekele’s main competitior on the day is likely to be 2014 champion Tsegaye Mekonnen (PB 2h:04m:32s) – who is one of only a handful of men who have ran under 2:06 before.
The first target for Bekele will be to hit the halfway mark in around 61 minutes, which is comfortably under a world record pace – a time Bekele almost clocked exactly in the German capital last year (61:11).
Most pundits and his manager, Jos Hermens, alike, feel that if he nails this, with the help of three pacemakers, then he’s in an excellent position to race against the record book clocks with very little competition to the Dubai Police Academy finishing area.
Perhaps a secret weapon for Bekele is his carbohydrate-rich energy drink – though, the Ethiopian has kept the new scientific hydration fluid he uses firmly under wraps.
He says: “This drink is the best drink that I use, better than all drinks.
“Of course it can help me some percentage (that’s what I can say).”
Regardless of a world record or not in the UAE this week, Bekele has no plans to retire anytime soon.
He hasn’t ruled out competing in this year’s World Championships in London or even tackling the marathon distance at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
That’s despite not being included in Ethiopia’s Rio 2016 Olympic squad – a move by the country’s federation which drew criticism from Bekele (and the public) but he’s not a man to dwell on the past.
“Of course, I’m focused on the other races and I don’t think about it,” he says.
“God-willing, I want to continue as long as I can but I can’t put a benchmark on it.”
Bekele’s thinking about the future rather than the past and he feels he can run a time of 2:01:30 before putting his runners away for good.
That’s some statement, but with Bekele and like his compatriot Haile Gebrselassie over the years, there’s never been any holding back. And very few failed promises.
“It’s possible but not on Friday (to run that time),” he says.
“You need preparation and to change your training programme, that’s very important. It has to be different and the facilities and running groups have to be perfect.
“In Berlin, my plan was to run a personal best, not a world record.
“Maybe I could have got it but that wasn’t my plan. I focused on my personal best and running a good time.
“Running for a personal best or world record is not the same,” the veteran, who is also competing in the London Marathon in April, adds.
Indeed, Bekele actually ran his final 2.195 kilometers in Berlin in six minutes and nine seconds, which is the equivalent of a 1.58.13 overall marathon pace.
Many believe, including former Olympian Hermens, that he would have broken the world record last year if he hadn’t of had to fight off Wilson Kipsang to get over the finish line first.
Away from life on the circuit, Nike-sponsored Bekele is a busy man.
He works with Sub-2HR Project co-founder Yannis Pitsiladis and others on his physical condition, while his business ventures include land development near the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.
Bekele, however, is not yet specifically involved in this year’s sub-2 hour marathon project – an experiment if you like to create tailor-made running conditions and achieve the unthinkable.
“If everything is going well maybe it will happen but it needs a special course, preparation and conditions,” he says.
“With normal preparation you cannot run under two hours. It’s impossible.
“I couldn’t prepare for under two hours, it needs amazing training and everything needs to be right.”
“But of course that is my plan that I am working towards,” Bekele adds with a wry smile.