Boston, MA. — Press day at the Boston Marathon as principal sponsor John Hancock Financial Services introduces 2015 elite/pro fields. Count me among those who is not a fan of the Boston interview setup whereby the entire pro field is presented at individual tables in a one-fell-swoop opportunity. On paper it might seem like a good arrangement, but when most of the field is East African and speaks softly, it is all but impossible to communicate with them in the din. Secondly, there is no way to make your way around the entire room in the allotted time, so you end up prioritizing your interviews, and end up missing a whole bunch of folks you dearly want to speak to.
But enough of my bitching as there is lots to discuss as Boston 2015 kicks into high gear.
We begin with Lelisa Desisa, 2013 champ, who DNF’d last year at 35K after stepping on a water bottle at 25K. As the folks at Letsrun.com reported, since January 2013 Desisa has finished no worse than second in any race he has finished, including major marathons. And his only DNF was Boston last year. His last competition was in January at the superfast Dubai Marathon where he took second in a last 200 meter kick in 2:05.
“If he runs his race, he is the champion,” said his manager Hussein Makke. “He has done everything needed.”
Another Makke athlete making his Boston debut is another rugged Ethiopian Tadesse Tola. Tola has been scheduled for Boston several times in the past, but has never run it till this year. In 2012 the Ethiopian federation pulled his invitation after he was named to the London Olympic team. The 2013 world championship marathoner bronze medalist ran the Xiamen Marathon this January in China finishing fourth in 2:09. But he came into that race off a pulled calf muscle in November. That injury has now cleared up, but experience counts for a lot in Boston, and this will be Tola’s first excursion over the route.
Last year’s women’s third place finisher Mare Dibaba might well have finished second, but held onto Rita Jeptoo’s winning move longer than anybody, and suffered the consequences, being passed by Buznesh Dibaba. This year Dibaba is in top form, and hopes for a quick pace to maximize her fitness.
The woman ran what would have been a Boston course record last year (2:19:59), Buzu Deba, of Ethiopia/New York/Albuquerque has spent that last nine months in New Mexico to see if extra time at altitude will pay dividends on Monday. She dropped out of the March New York Half-Marathon, but that was a women’s issue, not a running issue, so she is fine, 100% healthy.
The enigmatic Zersenay Tadese was sitting all by himself at his table, somewhat odd for a five-time IAAF World Half Marathon champion and Olympic bronze medalist. But to date the Z-Man has not been able to transfer his world record 58:23 half-marathon condition to the longer distance. He has finished three marathons and dropped out of one, and his best so far is a modest 2:10:41 from London 2013.
He has been prepping back home in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea at 2300m altitude. His only tune up race was a 61-minute win at the Eritrean Half Marathon Champs, which he sort of poo-pooed, but 61 minutes at 7500’ altitude? He likes that Boston has no pacers and lots of hills, as his goals are all on making the podium, not time.
“It is possible to be #1,” he said explaining that he upped his training from 200km/week to between 250 and 300km per week.
Surprisingly, last year’s fourth placer finisher Vitaly Shafur of Ukraine not only PRd by two minutes to bring his best down to 2:09:37, but after his first go-round in Boston he now sees himself going for all the marbles as event champion.
“I have come to be #1,” he said through his interpreter/manager Andrey Baranov.
When asked why he is so confident, Shafur spoke about wearing race #23 on his singlet and finishing fourth, while this year he will be donning that #4. So, logically…?
But he has had “awesome training” in Kiev where he is coached by Igor Osmak and trains with Sergey Lebed, former silver medalist at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships, who is running London next week. Last year Shafur thought Boston would be harder than it was, and thus has gained confidence from that experience.
Lusapho April of South Africa surprised many with his third-place finish in New York 2013. But he’s no longer a dark horse, and seems ready for a top finish, as the field put together by Mary Kate Shea is well-matched.
“I’m ready to race,” the personable Mr. April told me. Five weeks ago he prepped for Boston with a 4th place, 61:21, at the New York Half. He followed up two weeks later with a 5th place at the Cape Town Half back home. But that was an Adidas race and hilly, so mostly he was fulfilling an appearance obligation during marathon training. Besides, he only got outkicked in the final 200 meters.
He, like Shafur, ran Boston for the first time last year, and now feels much easier with knowledge of the layout. In fact, he made the first move to break up the chase pack on the first of the three Newton hills at 17 miles, even found himself in fourth place at 35K, only to falter to 15th place at the end. His coach Karen Zimmerman has him ready for a PR, which stands at 2:08:32 from Hannover in 2013.
Of all the what-might-have-beens from last year, maybe Wilson Chebet is most sorry. He waited too long to chase Meb Keflezighi, and came up 11 seconds short on Boylston Street, knowing he would have been the most hated man in Boston if he had run down Meb.
This year the leader of Kenya’s largest training group is of the mind, ‘nobody goes free’. He hasn’t changed his training, and hasn’t done a prep race, but this is Wilson’s third time at Boston after a 5th place in the heat year of 2012, and a 2nd place last year. Few will be surprised if Chebet becomes the second man named Chebet to win Boston, joining 1994 winner Joseph Chebet if he can pull off the trick.
Patrick Makua is the fastest man in the field at 2:03:38, the former world record from Berlin 2011. Coming off two years of nagging injuries mostly attributable to back issues which led to knee pain, Makau may not be the same man who won in Rotterdam and Berlin four and five years ago, but he’s close. There hasn’t been any prep races, so his last competition was a win at December’s Fukuaka Marathon in Japan where he ran 2:08. But that was merely a test, not an all out effort. Though known as a savvy racer, Makau can’t remember the last time he competed in a non-paced marathon. Plus, it’s his first time on the old route, and he knows patience will be a key.
The Ethiopian contingent is strong with former New York City Marathon champion Gebre Gebremariam, 2:04 man Yemane Adhane who has won in Rotterdam (2012), Daegu and Ottowa (2014), Seoul (2009) and Eindhoven (2013). He has 20 sub-2:17s in his career, but no experience in Boston.
“But I have trained for the up and down,” he said.
His last competition was a 5th place finish at the December Honolulu Marathon where he was stifled by a hamstring problem and the rain, which he does not like.
Here is a killer, 19 year-old Shure Demise is a late entrant coming off a 4th place, 2:20:59, at the Dubai Marathon in January. 19 and Ethiopian, pretty much bullet-proof. But her coach Gabriele Nicola is a little more circumspect, admitting that “Dubai is Dubai”, meaning three turns over 26 miles and male pacers till 40K. Boston it ain’t. We shall see what real racing brings out in her.
For the first time since she thrilled us with a close runner up finish in Boston 2011, Desi Linden is healthy and raring to go. While admitting that she might not have a 2:20 or under in her arsenal, Desi is healthy and feeling frisky. She did finish 10th last year in 2:23:54, but her training was compromised slightly by a tight hip. She is hoping for a war of attrition and something less than perfect conditions to slow the leaders down just enough to put her in the mix. And with a southeast headwind predicted over 48-52 degree air temps, she might have got her wish. She admitted to being a little flat in her only prep race, the New York Half in March, but said her training has been more consistent and higher than ever.
Coach Gabriele Nicola has three women racing on Monday, Sharon Cherop of Kenya, Shure Demisse and Aberu Kebede of Ethiopia. We have already gone over the teen talent Demisse. Cherop will be making her fifth straight appearance at Boston. The 2012 champion in the sweltering heat was third in 2011 and 2013, then 8th last year in 2:23:00. Coach Nicola says she is not in top form this year, but will make up for it with her experience.
She has been bothered with a left Achilles and right hamstring. Not enough to take her out of training altogether, but enough to limit what she can do in the higher registers of speed.
“IF everyone runs their best, “ said the coach, “I don’t think she is in podium condition. But I wouldn’t be surprised, either, because of her knowledge of the Boston course.”
“Aberu Kebede is ready,” Nicola continued. “She ran 5th in Dubai in January in 2:21:17, but had some chest congestion. But she recovered very quickly. The only question is, this is her first time to Boston, and it is a hilly course. In the past she has not expressed herself best on hills. Much will depend on what Shalane Flanagan does. Will she go out fast like last year? Or, will she wait?”
That’s the question everyone wants to know the answer to. And since Shalane as being inundated by the other press members, I didn’t get a chance to discuss strategy with her today. Perhaps tomorrow.