The Met Office storm warning was ringing true as Mo Farah, Kenenisa Bekele and Haile Gebrselassie reached Lizard Lane roundabout on Sunday and negotiated the steep downhill slope to the sea front at South Shields and the mile-long stretch to the finish line of the Bupa Great North Run. The rain lashed down and the wind whipped up to a speed of 45mph.
Then came another warning: this time issued by Bekele, for the benefit of the British golden boy who has succeeded him as the planet’s pre-eminent distance runner on the track over the past three years.
Farah might have beaten all global challengers at 5,000m and 10,000m in his home Olympics last year and done so again at the World Championships in Moscow a month ago, but when it came to the crunch on the roads of Tyneside yesterday, he found himself playing catch-up. While the Londoner held himself back on the sharp descent, Bekele went for broke in the world’s best half-marathon.
Within a flash, the 31-year-old Ethiopian, who had recovered lost ground after fleetingly dropping off the pace in mid-race, was 20m clear. Gebrselassie, his 40-year-old compatriot, the two-time Olympic 10,000m champion, was off the back and running for third place, which he duly secured in 60min 41sec, a world Masters record. Farah looked beaten too but managed to dig deep and to close to within a stride of Bekele.
It was a gripping finish, a fitting finale to the three most recent kings of the global distance running game. Bekele edged home by a second, clocking 60:09 and raising the index finger of his right hand as he crossed the line.
Not since 2009, when he completed his third successive global 5,000m-10,000m double at the World Championships in Berlin, has the former King Kenny been world No 1. A calf problem dogged him for three years. Then a foot injury put him out of contention for this year’s World Championships.
Sunday was Bekele’s debut at the half-marathon distance, his first step on the road to becoming a marathon man. All the talk on these shores has been of Farah taking the 26.2-mile event by storm when he moves up to the full marathon in London in April. On this evidence, though, he could have a formidable marathon rival in the diminutive shape of Bekele, whose smooth, economical, gliding cadence is ideally suited to the roads.
“It’s very exciting,” Farah said, embracing the prospect of the challenge. “Kenenisa is stepping up to the roads and this is what athletics should be about, competition like this. It shouldn’t be about just one person dominating.”
It seems that their first marathon clash could happen on the streets of the English capital next April. Asked whether he wanted to line up alongside Farah in the 2014 London Marathon, Bekele replied: “Yes. If I’m invited I’d like to run.”
It subsequently emerged that officials of the Virgin London Marathon had been in touch with Bekele’s Dutch management company within seconds of the finish yesterday. “I’m definitely doing it and it would be great if Kenenisa was too,” Farah said. “It should be good.”
The consolation for Farah yesterday, on the back of a long, draining summer track season, was his runner-up time of 60:10, an improvement of 13sec on the British best time he set for the half marathon in New York two years ago.
There was almost a world best in the women’s race but, after dropping the world 10,000m champion Tirunesh Dibaba and the world 5,000m champion Meseret Defar, Priscah Jeptoo finished five seconds shy of Paula Radcliffe’s mark. Still, the Kenyan winner of this year’s London Marathon clocked a stunning 65:45.