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Athletics: Bekele takes a step into the unknown

In an age when the world's best athletes habitually avoid one another for fear of losing stature, the organisers of today's Bupa Great North Run have defied the odds.

Kenenisa Bekele today tests himself over a new distance. Photograph: Getty
Kenenisa Bekele today tests himself over a new distance. Photograph: Getty

Joining the 55,000 entrants on the Newcastle start line are three of the greatest male distance runners of all time: Britain's superstar Mo Farah, the legendary Haile Gebrselassie and fellow Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele, whom Farah supplanted as Olympic 5000m and 10,000m champion with his spectacular performance at London 2012.

Since finishing a disappointed fourth in the London Olympics 10,000m and missing selection for last month's IAAF World Champion- ships in Moscow, Bekele has cut a lonely figure. Apart from a victory at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Eugene in June, where he beat two of the Ethiopians selected for Moscow, he has been quiet, but not inactive. The 31-year-old has arrived in the UK wanting to measure himself, not only against these champions, but also against the half-marathon distance. Call it a day of reckoning.

"This race is my first running the half marathon," Bekele says. "I am trying to raise my fitness. It is not easy to run this race, especially with serious guys like Gebrselassie, if he is fit, and Mo Farah. Farah, he is the fastest man at this time; it's not easy to run against these guys, but I hope to run a good race."

Over his lengthy career, Gebrselassie has set 26 world records, from 5000m to the marathon. On the track at 10,000m he has won two Olympic gold medals and four world titles. Having celebrated his 40th birthday this year, his best days are behind him, but both Farah and Bekele will respect his vast experience.

Bekele, meanwhile, has three Olympic gold medals - one at 5000m and two at 10,000m - four world championship 10,000m golds, and is the current world record holder at both distances. His dominance has included a discipline neither Farah nor Gebrselassie ever conquered - cross-country, winning an incredible 10 world senior cross-country titles.

No doubt he will be introduced to the crowd this morning as the reigning world record holder but how long will it be before Farah has a go at beating it? Can he do it? Bekele isn't sure.

"This is really difficult to say. You can't say someone will break the world record," he says. "It's not easy to break world records. It's not easy to run 26:17.53. It is not easy. It's different from racing."

Bekele has spoken of his desire to move up to the marathon and today's result will help determine if he has it in him to run longer than 10km in competition.

"If I get a good race [today], of course I will want to do a marathon," Bekele says. "I don't know where. I don't know when. It depends on this race. I am doing well, but I am not 100% fit. It's OK. I have been coming back from injury and ­training with my brother Tariku. I am running more than 200km a week. I am increasing every few weeks. My longest run is 30km."

Many race directors would love to include Bekele in their marathon fields. But only a few could afford the price tag as a fee upwards of $250,000 is likely to be necessary to entice him to make his debut. A betting man might put money on London making an offer. A good showing today would reinforce his bargaining power.

Meanwhile, the fact he has raised his training volume is encouraging to those who know him. His Dutch manager, Jos Hermens, points out that his dominance on the track started to erode once he no longer competed in world cross-country. In fact, his last complete cross-country season was in 2008 when he won his 10th world title in Edinburgh. That same year he achieved the 5000m/10,000m double at the Olympics, repeating that feat at the IAAF World Championships in Berlin the following year.

But there have been other complications that have restricted Bekele, a nagging calf injury for one. Hermens reckons his athlete has been training and recovering in equal measures.

Business investments have also eaten into his time. Bekele has insisted on being a hands on entrepreneur, building not only a six-lane, all-weather training track and two hotels in Sululta, just outside Addis Ababa, but also a hotel in the capital's downtown area. After several years of construction delays it finally opened a few weeks ago.

For today's race, therefore, Bekele has no great expectations, planning to use it as a gauge to his progress.

"Look at the situation, maybe Mo Farah is fit and at this moment he is the fastest guy, so he is in the best position," Bekele says. "If you look at me and Gebrselassie, Gebrselassie is a little bit old and myself I had an injury a long time. It's a new race and distance for me."

Three years ago, Gebrselassie won this event in the rain in 59:33. Farah won a half marathon race in New Orleans in 60:59 during his build-up to the world championships showing he is more than capable at the longer distances; but he has not competed since completing the double in Moscow.

The course record, meanwhile, belongs to Kenya's Martin Mathathi at 58:56. Should the weather co- operate, a new standard may be on the cards.

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