When Your Heroes Overstay Their Welcome

Maybe it’s time for Kenenisa Bekele to exit stage left.

Kenenisa Bekele is one of the greatest runners of all time, speak his name with reverence just as you would with Wayne Gretzky or Michael Jordan.

Getty Images

However, these two greats paint completely different roads towards inevitable retirement. Do you exit just as your skills start to diminish or do you retire twice, decide to come back and partially ruin your legacy as you average 20 points a game on a truly terrible Washington Wizards team?

Michael Jordan digs aside, it brings up the question… When is the right time to step away?

For highly competitive people it can be hard to find that line, you might feel that if you work a little harder you can get back to the top. Perhaps if you just dig down a little deeper maybe you can find that form of old. I’m often reminded of the punch-drunk boxer who keeps taking paydays only to be a shell of his former self and ruin his legacy further each time he steps into the ring.

Father Time is undefeated.

The talk for years is Bekele has been driven by setting the marathon world record, it’s only the natural progression for a runner who has 3 Olympic gold medals, 5 World Championship Gold medals, 11 World Cross Country Championships, and is the 5k AND 10k world record holder. He had the 2nd fastest Marathon time of all time before 2018, but 2018 has not been Bekele’s year.

While Eliud Kipchoge is cementing his legacy as the king of Zen and world’s fastest man, Bekele has been chasing his shadow — and it has not been a good look. Bekele entered London this year poised to challenge Kipchoge’s marathon dominance, but as the race played out Mo Farah and Tola Kitata were more of a challenge to Kipchoge than Bekele ever would prove to be. The 2:03 marathoner ran 2:08 and was a non-issue over the 2nd half of that race.

Then reports came out that Bekele wasn’t offered a spot in any of the fall majors (Berlin, Chicago, New York) as I covered in this week’s Running Through It Podcast.

This could have been Bekele and camp being priced out but as we saw today in Amsterdam… it was probably for the better.

2018 TCS Amsterdam Marathon

So assuming Bekele was offered the money he was looking for, now he has a great race to prove that Kipchoge hasn’t passed him by quite yet.

The competition in Amsterdam is solid but nothing Bekele should be bothered by, Lawrence Cherono is the class of the challengers as the defending champ — but he’s a 2:05 marathoner. If Bekele is Bekele of old then a 2:05 marathoner has no business mixing it up with him. However, through 30k the pace was getting away from the pack that, at this point, still consisted of Bekele and Cherono. As the projected finish time crept up towards 2:06 — Cherono made his move to correct that, he went to the front and instantly strung out the field. Immediately you could sense the problem as Bekele couldn’t cover the correction and was instantly 2 seconds off the back. 2 seconds would become 4 seconds, would become 10 seconds, would become 1 minute. Cherono kept charging and eventually won in an impressive 2:04:06 while Bekele just 1k from the finish and on 2:07 pace just walks off the course and heads towards his hotel.

It hurts to see as a fan; if Bekele finishes the race he runs 2:06 or 2:07… I’m sure in his mind he was disappointed with not being able to cover Cherono’s move but in running there will be days when we need to have it and we won’t… however, another DNF for him is unacceptable after the hype they created heading into Amsterdam.

That’s it.

No fanfare, just a lot of speculation for what this all means looking towards 2019.

I reached out to Bekele’s agent Jos Hermens to see if there was a bigger plan moving forward, he responded,

“It’s too early to make plans.
We first need to evaluate everything.”
Hermens and Bekele on the track

So where do we go from here?

Stepping away

There’s no perfect blueprint for retiring, we can look to a runner like Meb who after a great career stepped away to be an ambassador to the sport.

We can look to Wayne Gretzky who upon realizing he couldn’t be as effective of a scorer anymore announced that his season would be his final.

Look at Usain Bolt who ran in his final World Championships and finished with 1 final Bronze medal.

We can look at Peyton Manning who felt he had 1 more season left in him and left as a World Champion.

Look at Derek Jeter’s final season which turned into a parade of gifts as he hustled out 1 final effective season for the Yankees.

There are also examples of how not to do it. I ragged on MJ earlier so I’ll leave him out but you could say the same about Kobe Bryant overstaying his welcome and being unable to score but still taking the same chances he would in his prime.

Look at Jaromir Jagr playing late into his 40’s, playing low minutes in Calgary before he realized he couldn’t be the guy anymore.

There are too many examples of greats waiting too long to retire and not being celebrated properly.

So what does Bekele do?

In my opinion, he isn’t done as a great runner. But I do think he is done as a marathoner — the candle being burned chasing after Kipchoge is now extinguished.

Whatever he decides to do, he needs to announce his decision ahead of his final race. Give us fans a moment so we can step back and fully appreciate his career for what it is…

The greatest of all time.

-Justin Horneker