By Mitch Phillips
LONDON (Reuters) - An unfamiliar course, poor weather and the absence of 750,000 cheering fans suggest a world record is unlikely in Sunday's London Marathon but long-standing rivals Eliud Kipchoge and Kenenisa Bekele could still produce a race for the ages.
After the cancellation of the original race in April due to COVID-19, organisers have pulled together an elite-only event, featuring almost 20 laps of St James's Park, behind high fences and watched only by a handful of journalists, coaches and event officials.
For Kenya's Kipchoge, this will feel familiar after he became the first man to break two hours on a similar multi-lap course in Vienna last year, his one hour, 59.40 minutes time ruled unofficial due to pacemaker and drink station anomalies.
There is no getting around his official record, however, posted 2:01.39 in Berlin in 2018 to destroy the existing mark by 78 seconds and seal his position as the sport's greatest-ever over the 26.2 mile distance.
Ethiopia's Bekele had his own "GOAT" claim after winning multiple world and Olympic track titles and setting long-standing world records.
His marathon best seemed to be behind him until he somehow found a 2:01.41 in Berlin last year to miss Kipchoge's mark by two seconds. That made the East African duo the only men to have broken two hours, two minutes for the distance.
It is remarkable that both won distance world titles on the track in 2003 and now, 17 years on, are still top of the pile and breaking new ground.
Bekele, who still holds the 10,000m world record having lost his 5,000m mark last month, is 38 to Kipchoge's official 35 - though many believe the Kenyan to be several years older.
"It should be a great race and I'm really looking forward to it after almost a year since I last competed," Kipchoge, seeking a record fifth London title, told a remote news conference on Wednesday.
Asked what he thought of his chief rival, he said: "I respect the man, the success and the mentality of being able to train with such discipline even after such huge success."
Bekele, who must have thought his podium days were over after a series of poor runs and failed finishes in the two years before his Berlin renaissance, repaid the compliment.
"We are rivals, we beat each other a few times and such a rivalry has helped keep us in the sport for so long," he said.
"Of course I respect him as an athlete and for his discipline to stay in the sport for such a long time. We have the same management and share many things but we will race."
Kipchoge will wear the latest version of Nike's carbon-plated Alphafly Next% shoe, which comply with World Athletics' new restrictions on cushioning height but are still widely perceived to give a considerable advantage over traditional shoes.
Bekele has opted for the older Vaporfly version that served him so well last year.
(Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Christian Radnedge)