When people think of the greatest runner of all time, a lot of names might come to mind. There’s Eliud Kipchoge, the man who broke the marathon world record who has run sub-two hours in the marathon. There’s Mo Farah, the multi-time Olympic champion in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters. There’s Haile Gebrselassie, the Ethiopian legend who was also an Olympic Champion in the 10,000 meters and world record holder in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters. There’s Hicham El Guerrouj, the man who holds the mile and 1500 meter world records. And then there are the greats before the modern era of running: Emil Zapotek and Miruts Yifter.
But lastly, there is Kenenisa Bekele, who holds three Olympic gold medals across the 5,000 and 10,000 meters, as well as holding the world records for both events. Bekele was the most dominant cross country runner ever. From the early 2000s to 2009, Bekele was the best in the world, and then he suffered a slew of injuries.
Currently, Bekele, at 37, is trying to make it in the marathon. He holds the second-fastest marathon time ever of 2:01:41 in the 2019 Berlin Marathon, only two seconds behind Kipchoge’s ratified time. Bekele has dropped out of a lot of marathons due to injury, and many have declared his career over. However, the biggest mistake anyone can make is counting out Bekele. Whenever you think he’s done and his career is over, he comes back and proves you wrong. It’s not uncommon to see LetsRun forum threads of Bekele being “washed up” and “irrelevant,” but Kenenisa Bekele is not done yet despite setbacks and injuries.
“I have shown that my career is far from over,” Bekele said after the 2019 his race.
Of course, Bekele’s resume speaks for itself. He has five outdoor World Championship golds, 11 World Cross Country golds, and previous world records in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters. What is tremendously underrated is Bekele’s dominance in cross country — he was the first runner to ever win the short course and long course in the 2002 World Cross Country Championships. He did so for five consecutive years. For non-running fans, that’s like playing two of the best basketball teams on back to back nights and destroying both of them.
“I’ve achieved everything there is to accomplish in cross country. I’ve competed in the cross country world championships for six years and now it’s time to step aside and make way for some of our younger athletes,” Bekele said after his 2008 World Cross Country Championship victory.
Most of Bekele’s fame comes from his accomplishments on the track, but it’s frightening to think that Bekele was more dominant in cross country. But more of why Bekele is the best runner of all time is personal to me. He got me interested in running when I was only in seventh grade. He looked unstoppable, unperturbed. Watch Bekele run any of his world records, any of his Olympic or World Championship victories, and his face looks completely unchanged the whole race. He shows no strain, no sign of fatigue. And on the last lap, he would look like a sprinter, decimating the rest of the field.
I wanted to be more like him. But I never had the same finishing speed.
Bekele was also consistent and prolific in his racing, like no other runner. When he was healthy, no one could stop him — except in 2005. That year, Bekele faced personal tragedy — his fiance, Alem Techale, died suddenly on a run, and Bekele was devastated. He was talking about quitting running and lost races to people he would have previously beaten with ease.
“At that time, I really wanted to stop running for ever. I thought, ‘Even if I made money from athletics, how would that bring her back?’” Bekele told Xan Rice at The Guardian.
Bekele eventually go back to his usual form, dominating the World Championships 10,000 meters.
Today, Bekele is the best runner of all time in running history because of his sheer consistent dominance, and he has done so in cross country, on the track, and on the roads, for a very long time. At his best, no one besides Hicham El Guerrouj could challenge him in the 5,000 meters, and Bekele is anything but done right now. He is the best runner of all time, and he’s not even done yet, no matter what anyone says.
Bekele stated after he won the World Championships 5,000 meters and 10,000 meters that what motivated him was pure love for running. What we can take away from someone who runs and trains as seriously as Bekele, who is so dominant at the sport, is that loving what we do comes first, everything else comes second.
“It gives me so much pleasure,” Bekele said.
Bekele has been equated to the Usain Bolt of distance running, and that’s a fair comparison besides the fact that distance running does not get the same recognition as sprinting. Bolt is a far bigger celebrity than Bekele, since the 100 meters is more popular than the 10,000 meters.
“He is a really wonderful athlete but the problem is that everyone these days concentrates on the shorter distances and Bekele just doesn’t get the recognition he deserves,” Usain Bolt said.
“Kenenisa Bekele is like the Usain Bolt of distance running,” Mo Farah said.
I will always remember the days when I saw Bekele absolutely blow away his competition and gap the field by more than 50 meters. I remember when I saw Bekele tick off splits like a metronome, not afraid to take the lead when the time called for it. I remember staying up late at night to watch Bekele seemingly get dropped from the pack, only to have more life and kick it into another gear.
Bekele is not going away any time soon.
Originally published on December 28, 2020 on Runner's Life.