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Kenenisa Bekele eyes world record at London Marathon

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Ethiopian icon Kenenisa Bekele takes his second crack at the 26.2-mile world record this year at the London Marathon, live on NBCSN, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app on Sunday at 3:30 a.m. ET.

Bekele, an Olympic champion and world-record holder in the 5000m and 10,000m, leads a field that includes Rio Olympic silver medalist Feyisa Lilesa of Ethiopia and 2016 New York City Marathon winner Ghirmay Ghebreslassie of Eritrea.

The women’s race on Sunday is even more decorated:

Mary Keitany: Five combined London and NYC Marathon wins
Vivian Cheruiyot: Rio Olympic 5000m champ in marathon debut
Tirunesh Dibaba: Eight combined Olympic/world titles at 5000m/10,000m
Mare Dibaba: 2015 World marathon champion
Tigist Tufa: 2015 London Marathon winner
Florence Kiplagat: Two Berlin Marathon titles

If one runner is the focus Sunday, it’s Bekele.

In his last finished marathon, Bekele missed the world record of 2:02:57 by six seconds in September.

He’s already arguably the greatest runner of all time, by virtue of his eight combined Olympic and world 5000m and 10,000m gold medals and enduring world records in both distances.

Bekele, now 34, set the 5000m mark in 2004. Nobody has been within nine seconds since. He broke the 10,000m record in 2004 and 2005. Nobody has been within 18 seconds in the last 12 years.

Bekele moved up to the marathon in 2014 and had decent results but was not a world-beater.

Until Sept. 25. Bekele won the Berlin Marathon in 2 hours, 3 minutes, 3 seconds, the second-fastest time ever on a record-eligible course. He was disappointed that he did not break Dennis Kimetto‘s world record from 2014.

London will mark Bekele’s third marathon in the last seven months. He was trampled at the start of the Dubai Marathon on Jan. 20 and then dropped out of the race halfway through, citing a calf injury from the fall.

Bekele says he is fit.

“I am in just as good shape as I was in Berlin last year,” he said, according to London organizers. “I think I can improve my personal best.”

Don’t be so sure.

Berlin is unquestionably the best course for world-record chasing. Six of the seven fastest marathon times in history came in Berlin in the last six years (on record-eligible courses).

Bekele also benefited in Berlin last year from having Wilson Kipsang, the former world-record holder, to push him to a faster time in the final miles.

The London field includes neither Kipsang nor Eliud Kipchoge, considered the world’s best marathoner. Kipchoge is preparing for Nike’s special attempt to break two hours in the marathon on an Italian race track in two weeks. That Nike attempt is reportedly not for an officially sanctioned world record, though.

Bekele is one of eight active runners who have broken 2:04. None of the other seven are in the London field.

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Katie Ledecky wins race by 30 seconds, takes back No. 1 ranking

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In her last race of the year, Katie Ledecky ensured she would finish 2019 as the world’s fastest 1500m freestyler.

Ledecky clocked 15:35.98 at the U.S. Open in Atlanta, winning the longest event on the Olympic pool program by 29.97 seconds. Typical for Ledecky, who owns the nine fastest times in history. This one came in at No. 8. Full meet results are here.

Ledecky scratched the 1500m free final at the summer world championships due to illness. Italian Simona Quadarella went on to win that title in 15:40.89, which was the world’s fastest time this year until Saturday night.

“I didn’t have time on my mind at all today. I just wanted to have a consistent swim,” Ledecky, undefeated in 1500m free finals for nine years, said on NBCSN. “That’s probably the best mile that I’ve had in a while.”

The women’s 1500m freestyle debuts at the Olympics in Tokyo. Ledecky is expected to add that to her Rio Olympic individual lineup of 200m, 400m and 800m frees, assuming she is top two in each event at the June Olympic trials.

In other events Saturday, Erika Brown handed Simone Manuel a rare defeat in the 100m freestyle. Brown, a University of Tennessee senior, clocked 53.42 and lowered her personal best by .71 between prelims and the final. Brown moved from sixth to fourth in the U.S. rankings this year, upping her stock as a contender to make the Olympic 4x100m free relay pool via a top-six finish at trials.

Brown previously lowered her personal best in the 50m free on Thursday. She ranks third in the U.S. this year in that event.

Emily Escobedo dealt Lilly King a rare domestic defeat in the 200m breaststroke. Escobedo lowered her personal best by .87 and clocked 2:22.00, moving to seventh fastest in the world this year and remaining fourth among Americans.

In the men’s 200m breast, Olympic champion Dmitriy Balandin of Kazakhstan was beaten by Cody Miller, the Olympic 100m breast silver medalist. Both were slower than their best times this year.

The next significant swim meet is a Tyr Pro Series stop in Knoxville, Tenn., from Jan. 16-19.

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Mikaela Shiffrin runner-up in Lake Louise downhill

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LAKE LOUISE, Alberta (AP) — Here’s a scary thought for her competition: Mikaela Shiffrin is still getting comfortable with the intensity and the speed of the downhill.

That’s why podium finishes are still a little surprising even to her.

The American three-time overall World Cup champion finished runner-up to Nicole Schmidhofer of Austria in a downhill race Saturday. Schmidhofer cruised through the course in 1 minute, 49.92 seconds to edge Shiffrin by 0.13 seconds. Francesca Marsaglia of Italy wound up third.

Schmidhofer has four career World Cup wins, with three of them arriving at Lake Louise.

Known as a tech specialist, Shiffrin is steadily getting up to speed in the speed events. This was Shiffrin’s fourth career World Cup podium finish in the downhill, which includes a Lake Louise win in 2017.

So, does Shiffrin anticipate this kind of downhill success?

“No, no, no,” the 24-year-old from Colorado said. “It’s certainly not normal (for a downhill podium). Even racing downhill doesn’t feel normal. But I feel every year like I have more experience and get more comfortable.”

Shiffrin currently sits at 62 World Cup wins, which ties her with Austrian great Annemarie Moser-Proell for second-most on the women’s side. Lindsey Vonn had 82 wins before her retirement.

“I’m certainly more comfortable with the long skis,” Shiffrin said of downhill racing. “Right now, it’s enjoying it, because speed is a little bit extra for me. My goal is to be able to succeed in speed as well. It’s making the transition and trying to have fun with it.”

Czech Republic skier and snowboarder Ester Ledecka finished fourth Saturday. She was the surprise winner of Friday’s season-opening downhill, which was delayed and shortened by heavy snowfall on the mountain. The race Saturday was restored to its full length.

Next up, a super-G on Sunday.

“It’s always been a little bit tricky for me from downhill skis to super-G skis and to change the timing a little bit,” Shiffrin said. “I’m going to have fun.”

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