Kenenisa Bekele returned to Berlin in September 2019 to confront something he had worked so hard to avoid for most of his career.
Out of three starts in the city, the three-time Olympic champion had failed to win or even finish a marathon.
That was a disturbing fact for a man who had gone unbeaten for eight years, between 2003 and 2011, in the 10,000m.
A return to winning ways was overdue on the flat and fast course in the German capital.
The Ethiopian won his second Berlin marathon title with a personal best time of 2:01.41, the second fastest of all time.
That race spurred him on.
Bekele now believes he can further shave more than a minute off his personal best, and even lower the official world record to two hours... a mark only broken by his rival Eliud Kipchoge in closed conditions and with aids that wouldn't be available in a recognised race.
"I'm sure, it's possible to run that time [two hours],” Bekele said in an exclusive interview with the Olympic Channel.
“I can run maybe faster than the world record, maybe close to two hours or something. It's down to the weather conditions and a good course.” Olympic champion Kenenisa Bekele
Kenenisa Bekele: Still a world record holder
The Ethiopian, who still holds the 5,000m and 10,000m world records, ruled the distance track athletics events before switching to the road for the marathon in 2014.
It was a resounding debut in Paris, as he posted one of the fastest times ever of 2:05:04.
Afterwards, he struggled.
A fourth placed finish behind world record holder Kipchoge followed in Chicago a few months later, before taking time off to recover from a niggling Achilles tendon injury.
Bekele won the 2016 Berlin Marathon and then battled further injuries.
“For me to stay for a long time, like 15 years, even 20, you know, it's not easy. Very few athletes do this,” he said of the low moments when his marathon career took a dip.
“You can struggle with many things. It could be an injury. There are many obstacles, it's not easy. Passing all those obstacles and coming back makes it special.”
Berlin Marathon: A close call and a painful memory
The 37-year-old has been in the best shape since his last race in Berlin, where he ‘painfully’ missed the world record by just two seconds in 2019.
An unforgettable memory that still haunts him.
“I missed by seconds…two seconds. To miss the world record in the marathon by two seconds...you know two seconds? It's crazy! It was painful.” - Kenenisa Bekele to Olympic Channel.
“I tried, though I didn’t plan for the record. My focus was to run my personal best on that day. I knew the world record was not easy, it was far off from my personal best. I just focused on running my personal best on that day.
"I didn’t really focus for the record. I think that’s why I missed it.
“Maybe, I also made some mistakes during the race. With two kilometres to go, I should have focused on the record. But I didn't."
He ran a blistering pace in Berlin improving his personal best by over one minute, thanks to a new training plan from Ethiopian coach Haji Adelo, whom he has been working with since 2019.
A world record under threat at the 2020 London Marathon?
The man who won 17 world titles over cross-country, track, and road, craved to make up for the world record miss with another fast run and imposing victory, as he still enjoys top form.
He wanted it as soon as April 2020.
Bekele was confident he could summon his marathon career-best form on April 26 in London when he was scheduled to run against Kenya's Eliud Kipchoge, who holds the official world record of 2:01:39.
The reigning Olympic champion also became the first runner in history to complete a marathon in under two hours, clocking 1:59:40 in an unofficial event.
Bekele has come up short against Kipchoge in the marathon in the four occasions they have gone head-to-head.
In his marathon career, Kipchoge has won all but one of his races.
Did Bekele really think that Kipchoge could be beaten?
“Of course, why not? He is a human. If someone is well prepared and strong enough, why not? It's a race. You cannot give, all the time, 100% in a competition,” said the runner who denied Kipchoge the 5,000m title at Beijing 2008 with a remarkable finish.
The London Marathon has been rearranged to October 4. But Bekele can't help on reflecting on what could have been an epic race day in April.
“To run against Eliud Kipchoge…the two of us, having prepared well. I'm sure something could have happened on that day." - Bekele on postponed 2020 London Marathon date
“I respect Eliud Kipchoge. He's a strong athlete, very smart. We will put up a good competition. If we compete together this year, I'm sure it will be a good, good race. It's not so far away, five, six months is a very short time.”
Bekele is still training six days a week in his usual training base at the Sululta forest, just outside the capital Addis Ababa, but plans to take time off on Sunday [April 26].
“I’ll remember that day. I will pray as I was supposed to run on that day, but now we are at home because of the COVID-19 virus. It is a difficult time in the world. I also hope to help those who maybe lack financially or with other issues especially now. Many people have become poorer,” he told Olympic Channel.
The most decorated athlete in the World Cross Country Championships with 12 individual titles, has an impressive business portfolio, stretching over hotels, resorts, and a sports training centre.
Besides donating funds to the Ethiopian pandemic emergency kitty, he has also offered to turn the Kenenisa Sports Centre into a coronavirus treatment facility.
Two-hour world record?
It's not only taking down the world record time that would rank high in Bekele's list of career achievements.
The five-time World champion, wants a two-hour marathon on his record.
“At this time, I am only focussed on running around world record pace." - Bekele to Olympic Channel.
"Of course, it's difficult to say it's impossible to run a marathon faster than this,” he added, admitting he was motivated by Kipchoge’s Vienna run last October.
What makes the two men, both managed by Dutch Olympian Jos Hermens, special?
"If you look back at our results over a long time, the two of us have been really close to each other. We have the ability. From track races till marathon, it makes us special.” - Kenenisa Bekele
“We have become champions on the track over the 5,000m, 10,000m, at the Olympics, and World championships.
"Now, we have become fast marathoners. How many athletes did that? “posed Bekele, whose younger brother Olympic 10,000m bronze medallist Tariku Bekele is also an accomplished long-distance runner.
The Bekele-Kipchoge clash could also be the highlight of the track and field program at the Olympics in Tokyo.
It's anticipated Kenenisa will return to the Olympics after his shock exclusion by the Ethiopian Athletics Federation for Rio 2016
“One year is not a long time,” the three-time Olympian said of the Games postponement to July 2021.
“I hope I can stay in good shape, disciplined, because one year is just tomorrow. The most important thing is to stay healthy and stay fit."
Hear more from Bekele and his great rival Eliud Kipchoge on the official Olympic Channel Podcast.