Kipchoge to take on Bekele in marathon 'race of the century'

Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya crosses the finish line to win the Men's Elite race at the 2019 London Marathon (Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images)
Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya crosses the finish line to win the Men's Elite race at the 2019 London Marathon (Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images)

It's all eyes on London this weekend as perhaps the most hotly-anticipated race of the year takes place in St. James's Park - the 2020 London Marathon - with qualification for Tokyo 2020 up for grabs.

On Sunday 4 October, the 40th edition of the London Marathon will take place. In a normal year, over 40,000 runners would be racing through the streets of the UK’s capital city. But this is anything but a normal year.

With the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the marathon was firstly postponed from April to October, before being relocated in its entirety to St. James’s Park, where a select group of invited elite runners will run 19.6 times around a 2.1km closed-loop circuit.

There will be no crowd cheering the athletes on and none of the traditional build-up, as athletes have spent the past days preparing for the race inside a "secure biosphere".

But none of this has stopped this from becoming arguably the most highly anticipated race of the year - if not the century so far.

Tokyo 2020 looks at just why.

Kipchoge vs. Bekele

Undoubtedly the main reason the Men's Elite race is such a mouthwatering prospect is the face-off between Kenya's current marathon world record holder Eliud Kipchoge and Ethiopian distance running legend Kenenisa Bekele.

Kipchoge is aiming to win an unprecedented fifth London Marathon this coming Sunday, but while he is the only man to have ever run the 26.2 mile distance in under two hours - an unofficial time of 1:59:40.2 set almost exactly a year ago in Vienna - the Kenyan athlete will be facing his fiercest competition yet.

On 29 September 2019, the three-time Olympic gold medallist and current 10,000m world record holder, Bekele, showcased his immense talent over the marathon distance when he came within two seconds of breaking Kipchoge’s official world record with a run of 2:01:41 at the 2019 Berlin Marathon.

The stage is set for an incredible battle of tactics, determination and skill when Sunday comes around.

Kipchoge had this to say about this weekend's race: “I want to make history by being the first man to run London five times and win London five times… I trust that I will run the best time and it will be really critical for me to win London for the fifth time.”

And while away from the race course they are, in the words of Bekele, "long time rivals and friends," the Ethiopian runner will be hoping to bring Kipchoge out of his comfort zone as soon as the race begins on Sunday morning.

"From start to finish I want to control. I want to come on top, from start to finish. It doesn’t matter what’s happening in between," said Bekele. "Winning for me in this place is a big gift for me."

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The most elite men's field ever assembled?

While Kipchoge and Bekele will be the marquee names, they are not the only talents preparing to line up in the Men's Elite race this weekend. Out of a total of 45 competitors chosen to take part in the event, five have PBs under 2:04, eight under 2:05 and 11 under 2:06.

And to add to the mystique of an already hotly anticipated event, a group of eight elite pacemakers will lead the way for the first 30km, including four-time Olympic champion Sir Mo Farah and Kenya’s Victor Chumo.

And while neither Kipchoge and Bekele have revealed the pace they expect the support runners to keep, it is expected to be very fast through the first 30km.

"The pace is going to be really fast," explained Bekele. "I have never seen the pace be slowed down, especially in the London Marathon!"

For a number of athletes, Sunday's race also gives them the opportunity to fulfil their Olympic dream after World Athletics lifted its suspension of the Olympic qualification system on 1 September. Qualifying times to watch out for are 2:11:30 for men and 2:29:30 for women.

The Men’s Elite race starts on Sunday 4 October at 10:15 a.m. BST.

Kosgei looks to defend her title

Last year's Elite Women's race saw Kenya's Brigid Kosgei become the youngest woman ever to win the event, setting the third fastest time in history after Paula Radcliffe's 2:17:42 time in 2005 and Mary Keitany's current world record of 2:17:01 in 2017. Now she will be looking to defend her title against a field that includes compatriots Vivian Cheruiyot the 2018 winner and Ruth Chepngetich, the reigning world champion.

Valencia Marathon winner Roza Dereje will lead the Ethiopian contingent, while the USA will be represented by Molly Seidel who qualified for the Olympics earlier this year in her first ever marathon.

In Thursday's official press conference, Kosgei had this to say about Sunday's race, as she kept one eye on making the Kenyan team for Tokyo 2020: "I will try my best in order to be selected in the Olympics next year."

And when pressed on whether she could push for a world record time on Sunday, the Kenyan athlete had this to say: “We did not get a group like last year, whereby we were in a group together - we just had to push each other. It’s not like Chicago (where she broke the world record for women running in a mixed-sex race last year) but I will try my best.”

The Women's Elite race starts on Sunday 4 October at 7:15 a.m. BST.

Manuela Schar of Switzerland crosses the line to win the Women's Elite Wheelchair race during the 2019 London Marathon (Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images)
Manuela Schar of Switzerland crosses the line to win the Women's Elite Wheelchair race during the 2019 London Marathon (Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images)
2019 Getty Images

London 2020 wheelchair races

There are also two wheelchair elite races in London with Manuela Schar seeking to pick up where she left off in 2019.

The Swiss won nine consecutive World Marathon Majors but COVID-19 considerations forced her to miss March's Tokyo Marathon.

She told World Marathon Majors in April: "We have months without any race. It's a totally new situation. I usually need that motivation for my training, that competition feeling. Especially with the Paralympics postponed to next year."

But her training is clearly going well as, in August, she broke the five-year-old 1,500m T54 world record on the track in Nottwil, Switzerland.

Schar's main rival could be two-time London Marathon winner Shelly Woods who makes her first appearance in the race in four years, following the birth of her son.

With reigning champion Daniel Romanchuk a late withdrawal, the men's race could come down to a duel between the two-time winner Marcel Hug and home favourite David Weir.

Now 41, Weir will be taking part in his 21st London Marathon and going for his ninth victory having last been victorious in 2018.

His old Swiss rival Hug, aka The Silver Bullet, is the reigning Paralympic marathon champion having also won the 800m on the track in Rio.

The Wheelchair Race starts on Sunday 4 October at 13:15 p.m. BST.

Members of the public go down The Mall , where the finish of the London Marathon was due to take place on 26 April 2020. The 40th London Marathon was due to take place with thousands of runners. It has postponed until 4 October due to the COVID-19 outbreak (Photo by Alex Davidson/Getty Images)
Members of the public go down The Mall , where the finish of the London Marathon was due to take place on 26 April 2020. The 40th London Marathon was due to take place with thousands of runners. It has postponed until 4 October due to the COVID-19 outbreak (Photo by Alex Davidson/Getty Images)
2020 Getty Images

How much of a factor will the course be?

This year will be the first time ever that the London Marathon has taken place on the looped St. James's Park course, but with the relocation come questions about just how fast the race will be.

Could we see world records broken?

On paper, the flat nature of the course should be an advantage to the athletes, who will not have to contend with the hills and uneven streets of London. On the other side of the argument, the circular course means runners will now have to navigate many more bends and curves, which could reduce the pace by seconds.

Race director Hugh Brasher is in no doubt the course will lend itself to fast times, providing it doesn't rain.

"We're doing the opposite of a rain dance," said the son of race co-founder Chris Brasher. "But I believe there will be some incredible racing that will live long in people's memories - and it could be incredibly quick."

And while Bekele was more circumspect during the official press conference before the race, saying: "It’s not an easy thing running curves, it’s a long way and maybe at some point you are losing some speed because of curves, some seconds."

Kipchoge seemed to relish the challenge: "There will be no problem as far as laps is concerned," he said. "I think we will compete in a good way and come with the best ourselves have on Sunday."