The Ethiopian legend ran the quickest time of 2016 when he won the Berlin Marathon last September in 2:03:03, just six seconds outside the world record, making him the second fastest marathon runner of all time.
But the man who won three Olympic titles on the track, plus five World Championship golds and still holds the world records for 5000m and 10,000m, said today that he is in shape to run even faster when he leads the elite men’s race on his second London Marathon appearance.
“I am in just as good shape as I was in Berlin last year,” he said. “I think I can improve my personal best, that would be perfect for me.
“Of course, in a marathon anything can happen, but I can say I am ready and full of confidence.”
Bekele made his London Marathon debut last April when he was third in 2:06:36 behind defending champion Kipchoge, who produced a masterful performance to lower the London course record to 2:03:05 and was followed by fellow Kenyan Stanley Biwott who clocked London’s second quickest time of 2:03:51.
Neither Kipchoge nor Biwott will be running on Sunday, but Bekele predicted that he will go even faster than the Kenyan pair as he seeks to break the 2:03 barrier in his seventh marathon.
Last year in London, Bekele described his fitness as “just 90 per cent” and in January he dropped out of the Dubai Marathon at halfway after tripping at the start, but he now claims to have put long-term calf and back injuries behind him.
“In Dubai this January I fell down at the start and then my body was unbalanced so I couldn’t finish the race,” he explained. “But everything is ok now and I’ve come here ready to run a good time.
“The calf has healed well and I’m not carrying any injuries, so I am full of hope that I will have success.”
Despite finishing third last year, Bekele was left out of Ethiopia’s team for the Rio Olympic Games, where Kipchoge won gold, and he admitted today that his anger at the decision has motivated him ever since.
“I was angry about not going to Rio,” he said. “But because of that I am motivated now all the time to run well.
“Every time I run a marathon now I am excited because each one is really challenging and all the time you are facing different competitors and a different pace.
“You have a different feeling each time and each one is a unique experience. The marathon is a special race.
“I’m not disappointed that Eliud is not here,” he added. “Of course, if we meet again I will be happy. There is every chance in the future we will race.”
Bekele’s opponents on Sunday include five other men who have broken 2:06, two of whom have run sub-2:05 including his compatriot Feyisa Lilesa, who did win Olympic selection for Ethiopia and went on to claim the silver medal behind Kipchoge.
While Bekele was at home, turning his wounded pride into inspiration, Lilesa was creating controversy in Brazil with a two-fisted, crossed-arm gesture as he approached the Rio finish line, a sign of solidarity with the oppressed Oromo people that led to his subsequent exile from Ethiopia.
Lilesa, who now lives in Arizona, in USA, where he was joined by his wife and two children last December, is the third fastest man in Sunday’s line-up with his personal best of 2:04:52. It’s a time he is keen to improve as he races in London for the first time since 2014.
He was seventh that year having finished fourth in 2013, but believes the knowledge of his people’s plight in Ethiopia will spur him to make the podium in 2017.
“I’ve raced in London before but I haven’t had any really good results,” said the 27-year-old, who won the Tokyo Marathon last year, one of 20 marathons he has run in his career to date.
“Now I am exiled in the US and I have a special place to train. I’ve prepared very well for this race and will run a personal best. My shape is very good now. I trained very well for Rio and I’m in similar shape now.
“It has been very difficult for me since the Olympics,” he added. “I stayed in the US alone for five months before my family joined me, but I am still exiled from my people. They are still dying and being put in jail.
“I am hearing all the time about what’s happening in Ethiopia and when I run I am remembering what’s going on. It is a very difficult situtaion. Life is good for me but for my family life has completely changed.”
While Lilesa will run with the thoughts of his people in his mind, Bekele hopes his head will be filled with the sound of London’s cheering crowds, an abiding memory from last year’s race.
“Running a marathon is more challenging than the track,” said Bekele. “To run well in a marathon you need the crowds and in London I remember the spectators were very different to any other race I’ve done.
“The people here love supporting the runners and I had an amazing feeling running in this race. I’m so happy to be back here again.”