Off To The Races (Finally)

By Mario Fraioli

Is this a scene we’ll see play out again on Sunday? Photo: Avda Foto

Many months back I wrote about why Nike’s sub-2 hour marathon attempt didn’t excite me. The “tl;dr” version basically boiled down to the fact that a well-funded science experiment which took place in a relative vacuum “bastardized the spirit of competition that makes a marathon…well, a marathon.”

Well, I enjoyed Nike’s Breaking2 exhibition more than I thought I would but it was still missing a lot of the essential elements that make racing attractive—namely, a race, more than two other competitors, droves of spectators, an interesting course and a slew of other variables that might affect the final outcome. So, it’s with giddy anticipation that I await this Sunday’s Berlin Marathon where three of the greatest marathoners (heck, runners) in history—Eliud Kipchoge, Wilson Kipsang and Kenenisa Bekele—will duke it out with one another on the world’s fastest ratified course and give chase to Dennis Kimetto’s 2:02:57 world record. Will they get it? I don’t know, and I almost don’t care. I just want to see what happens after the pacers step off the course at around 30K or so. Who will make the first move and completely change the dynamic of the race? Heck, maybe someone will be feeling overly ambitious and take off ahead of schedule—that’d be fun to watch! It’s not quite the “no-moves-barred” racing of New York, Boston or even Chicago (which did away with pacemakers in 2015), but it’s hard to complain with champions like Kipchoge, Kipsang and Bekele (not to mention former world-record holder Patrick Makau and former world champion Luke Kibet) in the same field. And unlike at Monza, I expect there to still be at least three men in contention when the real racing begins and it’s anyone’s guess as to who might break the tape when all is said and done.

My pick? As hard as it is to bet against Kipchoge right now—I mean, Christ, he’s the reigning Olympic champion, he’s run 2 hours flat for the distance and he’s only lost one marathon in his life—I’m going to go with Kipsang, who coincidentally enough is the guy who handed Kipchoge his lone loss back in 2013. I think Kipsang has a bit of a chip on his shoulder these days: he was second in Berlin last year (to Bekele), he’s been recently overlooked by many (including those in his own country), and dammit, he wants his world-record back. “My motivation is very high and this preparation will be the sharpest ever,” he told event organizers. Plus, he’s raced well so far this year, setting the course record in Tokyo and breaking 2:04 in the process. The image of Kipsang putting Lelisa Desisa away in the final mile of the 2014 New York City Marathon is forever etched in my mind and I’m picturing a similar flurry to the finish line in Berlin on Sunday.

Can Kipchoge win? Of course he can, so could Bekele for that matter—and it wouldn’t be a surprise to me if either one of them did—but I’ve got a sense that it’s going to be the Kipsang show this weekend. I’m betting that Monza took a lot more of out of Kipchoge, both physically and emotionally, than anyone bargained for, and Bekele hasn’t done anything since his victory a year ago that has shown me he’s ready to repeat. But who really knows what’s gonna happen? This is why they’ll race—to find out.

+ If there’s a major marathon to watch in 2017, this is it. Here’s how to tune in if you’re in the U.S, and this stream should be good elsewhere in the world.

+ I haven’t mentioned the women’s field for Berlin because the athlete lineup—and accompanying storylines—just aren’t all that exciting in comparison to the men’s race. The women’s field for November’s New York City Marathon on the other hand? Fire (and that list didn’t even include the American ladies).

Why is Kipchoge so good? “It wasn’t a single moment of exceptionalism,” filmmaker Martin Desmond Roe, who is working on a documentary for Breaking2, told Runner’s World in a recent interview. “It was Eliud runs every day at 6 a.m., every afternoon at 4 p.m., every day without fail to a program that is pre-approved, and he never misses it. That was the most impressive thing I saw.” Whether you’re Kipchoge attempting to break the world record or an age-grouper trying to set a personal best, commit to consistency. You’ll improve, I promise.

A version of this post first appeared in the morning shakeout, my weekly email newsletter covering running, writing, media and other topics that interest me. If you’d like for it to land in your inbox first thing on Tuesday mornings, subscribe here.