Sunday’s Berlin Marathon may be the biggest single race — road or track — for the next two years. Possibly from now until the 2020 Olympics. Maybe even longer.
Arguably the three greatest distance runners ever toe the line near Brandenburg Gate just after 3 a.m. ET (NBC Sports Gold and NBCSN). If any marathon is worth the sleep deprivation, it’s this one.
Major marathons are only elevating in significance within the sport. Consider the retirement of Usain Bolt and that the next world track and field championships aren’t until fall 2019.
In May, Nike’s sub-two-hour marathon attempt generated incredible buzz for a sporting event that occurred overnight Eastern time.
When Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge ran 2:00:25 on that Italian Formula 1 track, the inevitable question followed: what’s next?
The literal answer, aside from more sub-two talk: Berlin.
It’s where Kipchoge was bound to race next.
It’s where the men’s world record lowered six times since 2003, from 2:05:38 to 2:02:57. (Kipchoge’s 2:00:25, while incredible, came in non-record-eligible conditions, with pacers subbing in and out of the event)
Kipchoge signed up in July. Wilson Kipsang and Kenenisa Bekele soon followed. These three men have come closest to Dennis Kimetto‘s world record since it was set at Berlin 2014. All within 16 seconds.
The belief is that Kipchoge, Kipsang and Bekele, running together and behind rabbits for at least the first half, can push each other to stay on world-record pace. If nothing else, probability: three men chasing the world record is better than one.
Eliud Kipchoge, Kenya
2016 Olympic champion
Ran fastest marathon ever recorded (2:00:25)
Most likely to break the world record. Kipchoge has the pedigree (Olympic/World track medalist), marathon experience, age (32, youngest of the trio), consistency, mental game and fast times.
Kipchoge has run eight marathons (nine if you count the Nike event) and won all but one of them. The lone defeat was at Berlin 2013, when in his second career marathon he took second to Kipsang’s then-world record.
Consider his last four marathons:
Berlin 2015: 2:04:00 (insoles flopping out the back of his shoes the last half of the race)
London 2016: 2:03:05 (broke course record by 84 seconds)
2016 Olympics: 2:08:44 (conditions not suited for fast times; largest Olympic winning margin since 1972)
Nike sub-2: 2:00:25
Some of the best recent marathoners had short peaks, including two of the last three men to break the world record. As short as two years. Kipchoge has been incredible since his 2013 debut at 26.2 miles. How many more world-class marathons are left in those legs? The same can be asked of Bekele and Kipsang.
Kenenisa Bekele, Ethiopia
Olympic champion, world-record holder at 5000m, 10,000m
Won 2016 Berlin Marathon in second-fastest legal time ever
Bekele, 35, staked his claim to greatest distance runner of all time in Berlin last year, outdueling Kipsang and missing Kimetto’s record by six seconds. His versatility is unmatched:
5000m: Nobody within nine seconds of his 2004 world record since it was set.
10,000m: Nobody within 18 seconds of his 2005 world record since it was set.
This would seem to give Bekele an edge if all three are close in the final miles. However, Bekele is the least consistent of the bunch. Since he took up marathons in 2014, something has gone wrong every year.
2014: Won his debut in Paris, then missed the podium in Chicago.
2015: Dropped out during Dubai and before London due to injury.
2016: Not fully fit for London, dropped by Kipchoge and Stanley Biwott at mile 18 and finished third in his slowest time of five career marathon finishes. Bounced back in Berlin.
2017: Trampled at the start of Dubai and dropped out halfway through. Second in London in 2:05:57.
Wilson Kipsang, Kenya
Owns 3 of the 8 fastest legal marathon times
Won Berlin, London, New York City and Tokyo
Kipsang has run sub-2:05 each of the last eight years. Nobody else has run more than five sub-2:05s in a career.
Even if he doesn’t reclaim the world record, there’s an argument that Kipsang is the greatest marathoner of all time. And Kipsang, a police officer turned restaurant and hotel owner in Kenya, will defiantly make that argument.
He stands 6 feet, half a foot taller than Kipchoge and Bekele. With a longer stride and no track background, his chances in a close finish do not appear strong. Plus, Kipsang is the oldest of the three with the most marathons in his legs.
At this time last year, it appeared Kipsang’s best days were behind him. He went into Berlin 2016 having finished fourth and fifth in his previous two marathons (and dropping out of the one before that).
But he ran a personal best in the German capital last year and then made it back-to-back sub-2:04s for the first time in his career in Tokyo on Feb. 26. Nearly seven months since his last 26.2-miler, he’s by far the most rested of the three.
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