How could the professional women in Boston produce a nearly two minute, 2:18:57, course record this past Monday at the 118th Boston Marathon, while the equally powerful men’s pro field only manage a 2:08:37, some five and a half minutes off the 2011 course record? It’s the mystery of racing, and the reason that pure, un-paced competition is so much more compelling than time-trialing — where everyone knows what’s ahead, the only question being whether the time can be attained or not. If ever there was a case for competition, Boston 2014 was it.
But let’s look deeper into the 2014 Boston Marathon, and explore how the tactics and personalities of each sex’s race contributed to the outcome that brought Meb Keflezighi to the finish as the first American male champion in 31 years, even as Rita Jeptoo of Kenya zoomed home with the first sub-2:20 women’s performance in Boston history — Buzu Deba joined her with a 2:19:59 in second place.
Under excellent race day conditions – low 40F temps and a light SSW tailwind at the start – the 2014 women’s field swapped places with the 2011 Boston men. Three years ago under even more salubrious conditions Californian thoroughbred Ryan Hall went right to the front and kick-started the entire men’s pro field into a record pace: 4:38 for the first mile, 4:36 for the second, 4:39 for the third. Once rolling the pace never slackened on the way to Geoffrey Mutai’s spectacular 2:03:02 finish.
This year, under the strong lead of Marblehead, Mass. native Shalane Flanagan, it was the women who were similarly towed out hard, and never relented on their way to a record finish.
28 minutes later the men got underway with Americans Ryan Hall, Meb Keflizighi and Abdi Abdirahman striding to the front. But Ryan hadn’t finished a marathon in over two years, while Meb and Abdi were well-aged vets who weren’t about to throw caution to that moderate tailwind. As such, rather than release out of Hopkinton into Ashland, and with no African pushing through, the men started in a more controlled 4:48, 4:55, 4:54 opening three miles.
Races are idiosyncratic things that take on a tenor early, and generally maintain that particular attitude throughout. With the character of the 2014 men’s race thus established at standard rather than flank speed — insuring that a fast time was pretty much out the window — the men turned tactical with eye-balls on high swivel for the rest of the day. That’s just how it works.
By contrast, Shalane Flanagan came to Boston 2014 with a plan of attack in mind. She had tried sitting in with the great East African runners in the past, but found that tactic not just unsuccessful, but unsatisfying as it rubbed up against her natural racing personality. So this year the plan was to apply pressure from the gun, try to break free, and hope the Africans wouldn’t realize their mistake until it was too late. Keep in mind that Shalane has exhibited aggressive front-runner tendencies since her days at Marblehead High School and at the University of North Carolina. This is who she is at heart.
By studying past performances, she and coach Jerry Schumacher believed a 2:22 would be enough to win. The hope was to go out hard, and in so doing, be given freedom by her competitors. Then, by the time they realized what they’d done, Shalane would be away and uncatchable.
Not a bad plan in itself, in fact it worked like a dream for Meb, except for him it wasn’t a planned strategy. But in Shalane’s case it was a flawed plan due to the regard her opponents had for her. The other big-time women in the field weren’t about to let her go, even though she blitzed the first three miles in 5:11, 5:12, and 5:17, faster even than the 5:20/mile plan.
“Wow, the American girl was running like a 10K,” said eventual champ Rita Jeptoo of Kenya afterwards with evident respect.
As a past Olympic bronze medalist on the track who had just set an American record for 15Km in Jacksonville, Florida in March, Shalane was looked upon as one of the top contenders, and not to be dismissed or slighted. What she did mattered. Therefore the other women were on high alert, and not about to give her open road. The entire echelon of elite women simply lined up, swallowed hard, and held on tight hoping Shalane would eventually burn out.
Besides, the Kenyans, especially, fight with each other in training on a daily basis. One day one prevails, another day, somebody else. Rita Jeptoo and Jemima Sumgong are training partners with Olympic silver medalist and New York City champion Priscah Jeptoo. They relish the game. Shalane’s strategy failed to account for her own standing in the minds of her opponents.
In the end her aggressive, front-running tactic served as a de facto sling-shot for Jeptoo’s new course record. The fact is Shalane was never going to beat Rita last Monday. Jeptoo’s 4:45 24th mile and 15:44 split from 35 — 40Km was a wrecking ball of running excellence. That Shalane PR’d by 3 1/2 minutes off such an aggressive first 30Km is a testament to the fabulous shape she was in. I’d still love to see her on a flat course where her more animated track form wouldn’t take as much out of her as it does on the downhills of Boston. But Boston for Shalane is beyond special. So we shall see. Meb’s win at age 38 should give Flanagan confidence that she still has time to build an even stronger aerobic house, and her dream of a Boston win is by no means beyond her reach.
In the men’s race there was no discernible leader or plan whatsoever. Meb and Ryan went to the front early, but posted unremarkable splits in the early downhill miles as the big gun Africans eyeballed each other warily. That is the potential anytime you put together a field of such parity and strength. If one man of note would have gone, like Ryan Hall did in 2011, then all would have gone. But hesitancy breeds hesitancy, and so the miles slid by in moderation, all the while building tension in the pack.
Finally, when Meb and late entrant Josephat Boit opened a gap by passing up the elite aid station at 15Km, two things happened that conspired to keep the chase pack in idle according to coaches and managers I spoke with afterwards.
“Some guys didn’t realize Meb was up ahead,” said Claudio Berardelli, coach of Paul Lonyangata and Joel Kimurer (also Rita Jeptoo and Jemima Sumgong).
While seemingly hard to believe, in reflection it shows the intricate complexity of life within a World Marathon Major’s lead pack. Back-row guys may not have their heads up, or they could be watching someone nearby, sipping water or throwing away their bottles, and just not be keeping a sharp eye on the point of attack. As long as they account for all the guys they think are the dangers, all is well as it is.
Recall that Catherine Ndereba didn’t realize that Constantina Dita was way out in front at the 2008 women’s Olympic Marathon in Beijing until the final kilometer when she saw Constantina on the other side of the road coming back into the Olympic stadium. Well, Catherine hadn’t joined the lead pack until after Dita had gone free early on, and no one ever mentioned the fact that somebody was up the road throughout the race. By that time she saw Dita, there was nothing Ndereba could do but graciously accept her silver medal. It happens.
But that was only one element that let Meb go free in Boston.
“(Joel) Kimurer (6th place, 2:11:03) told me two Ethiopians started to push and he went with them,” recalled Claudio Berardelli, Kimurer’s coach. “But after 2Km they slowed and returned to the pack. Wilson Chebet (2nd, 2:08:48) did the same thing. He pushed for 600 meters, then said, ‘why push by myself?’. Boston is complicated. There is a fear to go unless all go.”
That, perhaps, is another long-term consequence of guys learning their craft in paced marathons, via group training and group racing. There’s no thinking required in a paced race. It’s either can you do this or can’t you? You don’t start seriously looking around till 35Km. That’s generally when the modern paced marathon begins its competitive phase. There is also the seniority thing to consider; there is a hierarchy in running. People know who the Alphas are, and are loath to upset that order. It’s not that anyone can’t win, it’s just that the pecking order of movement is sometimes overly constraining.
“I’m not going to go ahead of X, X is The Man, or X is my training camp leader.” This waiting for the Alpha to move can’t be discounted as a contributing factor.
We’ve seen this happen before. In 2007 James Kwambai seemed to let training mate Robert Cheruiyot go without a fight as the two headed into Kenmore Square in the final mile. We saw it again in Berlin 2011 when debuting Dennis Kimetto deferred to his training camp leader Geoffrey Mutai in the final 200 meters. But Kimetto, who was in Berlin because of Mutai, wasn’t about to try to topple the senior man. In both cases the World Marathon Majors bonus of $500,000 was on the line for the top gun, as well. So the protege wasn’t about to upset that apple cart. Seniority still means something in other parts of the world. In that sense the lack of a timely counter-attack in last Monday’s Boston men’s race can, to a degree, be viewed through this cultural prism.
On the other hand, America was founded on the concept of individual freedom, and we tend to act from that understanding. Ryan Hall and Meb Keflezighi are veterans who train mostly by themselves. The loneliness of the long distance runner isn’t new to them, they are used to having open road in front and behind them. While they may miss out on the very tangible benefits that big-group training does provide — particularly forming one’s blade then sharpening one’s edge on a larger stone — there is at least one plus to solo training, a sensory comfort to being out there on your own, riding the wave unperturbed by the wake that’s forming behind.
Ryan Hall might not have had the day he was hoping for (20th, 2:17:50), but at least he finished his first marathon in two years and, according to reporting by LetsRun.com, helped discourage any increase in tempo that might have come from the American contingent. Even if that had little to do with the eventual outcome, it was a characteristically generous gesture by Hall. Let’s hope Ryan can build off Boston to take another run at the top where he adds such interest and intrigue.
But there is a third, and possibly most likely, reason the pack didn’t give chase till too late.
“They all waited for Desisa,” said Gerard Van der Veen, manager of Dennis Kimetto (2:03:45 Chicago champion, DNF Boston) and Frankline Chepkwony (3rd, 2:08:50). “By the time they realized the defending champion didn’t have it (30Km), it was too late. Dennis moved after Wilson Chebet did, but he pushed too hard, and his hamstring (which he pulled at the City Pier City Half in The Hague in March) went again.”
“Desisa was saying to the other Ethiopians, ‘let’s go, let’s go’,” confirmed his manager Hussein Makke of Elite Sports Management International. “But Tilahun Regassa said, ‘no, no, no. He will come back. We can catch him later. He is not dangerous to us. We have 4 or 5 minutes better PRs than him’. Then, too, Tilahun got pushed from behind by Micah Kogo at the 15k aid station and went down flat on his face, and bruised his knee badly. He DNF’d at 19 or 20K.
To show how the fates have a hand in any such endeavor, according to Makke defending champion Lelisa Desisa twisted an ankle at the 25Km elite aid station, which caused him to compensate his stride, and that eventually caused him to drop out before 40K. Stuff happens when it’s not your day.
“Both Desisa and Regassa had bad luck,” Makke concluded, “but five days later, and I am still confused how the men’s race unfolded. It was one of the most disastrous races I have ever seen. They didn’t give respect to a champion like Meb, but eight or nine guys just didn’t show up… I blame Kimetto and Desisa. They were the heavyweights in the field. If either one of them would have gone after Meb, everyone would have gone.”
But, but, but…
That’s racing. You don’t get a Mulligan. Of course, three-time Amsterdam Marathon champion Wilson Chebet finally did mount a late-race charge, but though he ran Boston in the hot year of 2012, taking fifth, the rest of his marathon career has been spent on the flat, paced tracks in Amsterdam and Rotterdam. The 1:21 lead Meb had built up by 30Km now required serious closing speed, and maybe some fading by Meb.
Forgetting about who else might come, Chebet threw in a 14:29 5K split from 35 — 40Km down Beacon Street into Kenmore Square. Problem is, those downhill miles after all the early-mile downhills zapped his quads and drained his tank even as Meb kept a solid, even-paced tempo up ahead. When Chebet finally got into the killing zone — 6.3 seconds back with a mile to go! — all he had left was a pocket full of air. He was shot, now trying to fend off Frankline Chepkwony, coming in hard from third. Meb had held form, fought nausea, and rode the crowd in, even-paced to the end. It was a victory for resolve, reliability, and resolution.
There is history to apply here, as well. In New York City 1986 the alpha-male in the field was Boston champion and course record setter Rob De Castella of Australia. In that New York everyone kept eye-balling Deek waiting for him to go. Somewhere along the way Italy’s Gianni Poli opened a gap that nobody covered. By the time they realized Deek in New York wasn’t the same guy as Deek in Boston, race over! Big smile Poli! Deek in second 37-seconds back.
Twenty years later it happened again. The Man in New York 2006 was Paul Tergat of Kenya, the world record holder and defending champion. 2004 Olympic champion Stefano Baldini of Italy was also there along with 2005 Boston champion Hailu Negussie of Ethiopia. But the pacers never got close to the 64:00 first half they had been contracted to run. They crossed the Pulaski Bridge in 65:30. Nobody wanted to venture out as there were too many major champions in the field to account for.
Nine men joined the hunt up First Avenue with Americans Meb Keflezighi, Dathan Ritzenhein and Alan Culpepper either unable or unwilling to respond. (Meb had twinged his hammy in his tuneup half marathon in San Jose that year).
During mile 18 Brazilian Marilson Gomes Dos Santos went to the front looking to thin the herd a little. Not among the major players in the pre-race build up — though he had set national records at 5000 & 10,000 meters that summer in Europe, and I was told to keep me eye on him by his manager Luis Posso — he opened a gap with a 4:48 19th and 4:53 20th mile. Nothing flashy there, but because he wasn’t considered a threat, none of the guys went with him. Oops! He opened a 38-second lead by 23 miles. And though Tergat and Stephen Kiogora eventually whittled Dos Santos lead to 10-seconds, they ran out of real estate, and Dos Santos hoisted the first of his two NYC trophies.
These are the games athletes play. These are the decisions athletes make and the consequences which define championships and champions. The fact is, like Poli in New York 1986 and Dos Santos in 2006, Meb in Boston in 2014 wasn’t taken seriously by the Kenyans and Ethiopians, and it cost them the race. Meb ran completely up to his potential on Monday, which is all any athlete can do. The others didn’t and are now left to wonder “What if?”.
With his own intelligence, experience on the course, and the overwhelming emotional support from the throngs lining the roads, Meb was lifted to an historic win. The alpha-males: Lelisa Desisa (DNF) and Dennis Kimetto (DNF), and the secondary threats, Wilson Chebet (2nd, 2:08:48), and Micah Kogo (17th, 2:17:12), all ran with an implied arrogance that dismissed an aging, but still dangerous opponent. This is not a first. Meb has made a habit of feasting at the expense of better runners, but lesser racers.
This is why pure racing will always trump time trialing. If it had been a paced race, the odds are that Meb Keflezighi would not be the 2014 Boston Marathon champion, and the sport would be the lesser for it.