The BAA Boston Marathon is an IAAF Gold Label Road Race.
Just a year after Dire Tune won the Boston Marathon by two seconds over Alevtina Biktimirova, she was once again locked in a sprint battle down Boyleston Street for the Marathon victory. Unfortunately for Tune, that was the only similarity, as this time her opponent was Kosgei of Kenya, Tune was ultimately unable to defend her title, and this time the margin of victory was only one second. Kosgei won her first major Marathon (she had previously won in Singapore, Prague, and Paris) in 2:32:16, with Tune second in 2:32:17 and Kara Goucher 2:32:25 in third, reprising her ING New York City Marathon finish from last fall.
In the 21 runnings of the Boston Marathon since Ibrahim Hussein won Kenya’s first title in 1988, Kenyans have won 16, with Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot winning the last three. Today, the best Kenya could manage was second, as Merga of Ethiopia stormed to victory in 2:08:42 to win his first major Marathon, breaking away at the very beginning of the hills which dominate the second half of Boston’s point-to-point course and eventually building a fifty-second lead over Kenyan Daniel Rono, who finished second in 2:09:32. Rono was followed closely by Ryan Hall in 2:09:40, rounding out the highest combined male-female performance by the USA in over twenty years.
Merga’s new patience pays off – Men’s race
Despite Merga’s reputation as a front runner, it was Hall who set the opening pace, passing the first mile in 4:40. Through nine miles, Hall was a presence at the front as the pace hovered slightly below course-record pace. The pace relaxed progressively until 16 miles, where the hills began, with Merga seldom visible in the pack.
In 2006, Merga had covered a breakaway move in Boston and wound up walking in the last several miles, his bloody shoes in his hands. In 2008, Merga’s dogged pursuit of Samuel Wanjiru in the Olympic Marathon led to him struggling in the closing stages and ultimately losing a medal on the track inside the Bird Cage. In 2009 the lesson apparently has been learned. Before the race, Merga told reporters that winning Boston was about being “the last lion standing”.
Merga waited until 16 miles. At Newton Lower Falls, the lowest point on the course aside from the finish, Merga led a breakaway that shattered a 17-runner pack into individuals. Rono and Solomon Molla of Ethiopia tried to cover the move and for a mile or so the trio was nominally a lead pack, but Merga was in charge. Molla wound up fading to seventh. By the top of Heartbreak Hill, the race was essentially over.
Merga’s race had followed a classic Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot blueprint, except that rather than chipping away at the pack he simply blew it to pieces. Cheruiyot himself was not so fortunate. By the second of the three hills, the defending champion was visibly suffering with a back issue, and later reports said he left the course before the 23 mile mark. (His namesake, Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot, finished fifth in 2:10:06, and training partner Evans Cheruiyot was eighth in 2:12:45.)
“At the beginning,” said Merga, “I thought I would push at 35km. I looked around at 25km, and I thought there were a lot of strong athletes, and I thought I might not win if I didn’t push from there.”
“I didn’t get what I needed at the Olympic Games,” Merga explained, speaking both specifically of fluid on the course but more generally of goals reached and honours achieved. “At 40km I looked back, and there was nobody in sight of me. That’s when I knew I would win. I know Robert Cheruiyot is a strong athlete, and when he did not come up on me after 30km, I thought maybe today was not his day.”
Rono, for his part, was pleased with his second place performance. “We toured the course before the race, and I saw that the course is like life; at the end, there is a steep struggle. I thought the racing would start at halfway.”
Hall, who owns the fastest PB in the field, said, “I felt like a rookie out there. I’m excited to come back and give it another try. I was trying to keep an eye on the guys up front, because staying positive is the biggest challenge for most of us.”
Staying positive was less of a challenge for four-time winner and former course record holder Bill Rodgers, who started with a later wave of runners and finished in 4:06:49. Now 61, Rodgers started the Marathon for the first time since 1999.
Slow pace leaves a crowd in contention – women’s race
The women’s winning time was the slowest since 1985 (coincidentally, also the last year an American woman won in Boston), and the slowest since the Marathon began awarding prize money in 1986. In the teeth of a brisk headwind from the start, pace lagged early, with the entire pack of professional women (who started 28 minutes before the open race) eyeing each other and refusing to take the pace on the downhill slope out of Hopkinton. Eventually the leading duties fell to the apparently ageless Colleen de Reuck, now 45 and running for the Masters (over-40) title. The first mile was a sluggish 6:28, the first 5km passed in 18:58, and things did not get faster.
The pace remained manageable for De Reuck as she continued to share the lead through eight miles, when she faded to the back of the huge lead pack for several miles (the leader at nine miles was Firya Sultanova-Zhdanova, the Masters course record holder). The pace was still not sufficient to drop her, as she returned to the front for the last time at 18 and 20 miles. De Reuck did end up winning the Masters division in 2:35:37, placing 8th overall and earning a $10,000 for the Masters win and $7,400 for the overall finish.
The hills in Boston begin at the 16 mile mark (shortly after the 25km marker) and continue through 21 miles (shortly before the 35km marker). The women continued their relaxed pace right through the hills, with Goucher finally taking over the lead at the crest of Heartbreak Hill, the last of three climbs in the series. After 21 miles averaging 5:57 miles, Goucher ran a 5:21 which reduced the pack, then 13 strong, to five.
Another acceleration at mile 23 (the athletes ran from 23 to 24 in 5:09) dropped Helena Kiprop and Bezunesh Bekele, leaving only Goucher, Tune and Kosgei. Goucher continued to lead, pushing hard to break away, until less than one kilometre remained.
When the three women made the short turn on Hereford Street before emerging on Boyleston to run for the finish, Tune and Kosgei began to separate themselves from Goucher. The pair crossed and re-crossed paths as they battled up Boyleston, but it was Kosgei who crossed the finish line first by a stride. Tune collapsed to the street, and was eventually carried off. (Tune was taken to a hospital but released shortly afterward.) Goucher finished just eight seconds behind Tune and nine behind Kosgei. Goucher’s third-place finish was the best by an American woman since Kim Jones placed second in 1993.
“I didn’t know how strong I was,” said Kosgei of the sprint for the finish. “I finished first by chance. Before I was a marathoner, I was a sprinter, running the 800m and 400m. I’ve never run a slower race,” she added. “The day was not bad, the problem was the wind.”
Goucher added, “I thought I was going to have a kick. My legs were still poppy, I had some energy left.” Goucher also admitted to missing one of her fluid bottles, even though she had worn gloves made for (American) football wide receivers, designed for good grip.