The dream, said Kenenisa Bekele before the Schneider Electric Marathon de Paris, would be to break the world record on his marathon debut. His dreams may not have turned into reality at the IAAF Gold Label Road Race, but his triumph in a course record of 2:05:03 was far from a nightmare.
Having won global titles on the track outdoors and indoors, as well as on cross country, road running was the only area of distance running that Bekele had not yet conquered.
Now it looks as though he is well on his way to doing that.
Bekele and his agent Jos Hermens had explained this week that part of their reason for choosing this race over any other is that Paris organisers were able to build the race around Bekele, whereas in London he would have simply been one of the many other star runners.
Headed by three pacemakers – Abraham Kiplimo, Silas Kipruto and Erick Leon Ndiema – Bekele was one of a large group of about 16 runners as they went through 5km in 14:43 and 10km in 29:35, suggesting a possible finish time of about 2:04:50.
The group had been whittled down to 12 runners at 15km, which was passed in 44:15, and it soon became clear that they wouldn’t hit the somewhat optimistic pre-race target of hitting the half-way mark in 1:01:40.
Instead they went through 13.1 miles in 1:02:09, still incredibly quick, and two of the pacemakers dropped out, leaving nine runners up front, including remaining pacemaker Kipruto.
At 25km, passed in 1:13:53, Kipruto dropped out which left Bekele as the leader. Just two kilometres later, he pushed the pace with fellow Ethiopian Tamirat Tola joining him at the front. Mike Kigen, Limenih Getachew and Gideon Kipketer had formed a three-man chasing pack about 20 metres behind.
After passing 30km in 1:28:39, Bekele kicked on and was out in front alone, still set for a time in the region of 2:05 as a course record looked more and more likely.
But then at 34km, Bekele looked across to his manager Hermens, who was on the back of a motorbike, and, with a slight grimace on his face, pointed to his hamstring.
Nevertheless, he pressed on and went through 35km in 1:43:36, his lead having grown to 45 seconds. Behind him, Getachew had moved into second place as Tola began to fade. Further back, Jackson Limo had passed a tiring Kigen.
As Bekele went through 40km in 1:58:31, the victory now looked guaranteed. There were no further signs of being troubled by injury, or by any of the other opponents for that matter.
Followed home by a swarm of cyclists and joggers with a burst of confetti ahead of the finish, Bekele crossed the line in 2:05:03 to take nine seconds off the course record set two years ago by Stanley Biwott.
Bekele’s winning time is the sixth-fastest marathon debut in history on a record-eligible course. Significantly, it is also the fastest ever debut by someone older than 30.
Behind him, Getachew finished a comfortable second in 2:06:49 while Luca Kanda came through to take third in 2:08:01. Robert Kwambai was fourth in 2:08:48 and Limo fifth in 2:09:05 as the top five finishers all set PBs.
“I had no marathon experience before today and it was very tough,” said Bekele. “But I ran the time that I expected.
“After 25km I pushed on alone. My hamstring was cramping after 25km to 30km so I was a bit worried and it was very tough, but it was okay in the end.”
Cheyech smashes PB to win women’s race
Kenya’s Flomena Cheyech lived up to the pre-race expectations to win the women’s race, but while her victory wasn’t a shock, her winning margin and finishing time were both something of a surprise.
A comparatively smaller lead group ran together in the first half, passing 15km in 51:04. Cheyech took up the running soon after as she began her long run for home.
She upped the tempo as her lead grew. Despite looking tired in the closing stages, she still had enough to finish off the job, crossing the line in 2:22:42 to take almost two minutes off her previous PB, set last year when winning in Vienna.
Although some way off the 2:21:06 course record set last year by Boru Tadese, Cheyech’s performance was the fourth-fastest winning time in the French capital.
Almost four minutes behind, Ethiopia’s Yebrqual Melese took second place in 2:26:21, taking more than three minutes off the PB she set earlier this year in Dubai on her marathon debut. Compatriot Zemzem Ahmed, a former steeplechaser, finished third in 2:29:35.