Boston, Ma. – U.S. Olympians Shalane Flanagan, Amy Cragg, Meb Keflezighi and Ryan Hall were an added attraction at today’s 2016 Boston Marathon elite athlete press conference. But with the top end Americans resting from February’s Olympic Trials and preparing for Rio Games this summer, there are fewer marquee names in this year’s marathon field. Plenty of very fast runners, mind you, just not a lot of star power.
The biggest story in Boston 2016 is probably Lelisa Desisa’s attempt at a third BAA crown. The 26 year-old Ethiopian has won two of his three Boston starts, 2013 and 2015. Only a DNF in Meb’s year of 2014, when Desisa stepped on a water bottle at 25K forcing him from the race at 35K, has seen him off the winner’s stand. And speaking to his coach Haji Adillo, and his manager Hussein Makke, Desisa is laser focused on that three-peat.
“He is in top form,” said Coach Adillo, “better than ever, more mileage than before. But after the World Championships (7th in Beijing in August) and third place at New York, we said, ‘enough’. So we took it easy after November with only one race scheduled before Boston.”
Lelisa won that race, the Aramco Houston Half Marathon in January in a fine 60:37, showing he is in perfect position to become the ninth runner to take three Boston wins in a career, and first since Robert Cheruiyot won the third of four in 2007.
But Boston is a tricky race with no pacesetters, and a course as undulant as a Moroccan belly dancer. Last year’s runner up, Yemane Tsegay, also from Ethiopia, is back looking for his first major win. Says he’s fit, and looking to improve from last year. He took the silver medal at the Beijing World Championships last August, then returned to New York City in November, posting a fifth place finish. He only ran 62:53 at the Marugame Half Marathon in Japan this February as a Boston tune up, but says he didn’t want to run faster while he was focusing on Boston.
The sidebar story with Tsegay, however, and overall elephant in lead packs everywhere, is the positive doping result by his wife Abebe Aregawi, an Ethiopian-born citizen of Sweden who won the 2013 World Indoor 1500m title. She reportedly failed an out-of-competition urine test while in Addis Ababa in January. According to the Guardian newspaper, there are also strong indications that Aregawi is one of a number of Ethiopian-born athletes who will be announced to have failed drugs tests in the coming weeks.
In fact, in a recent visit to Ethiopia, WADA declared a near total absence of doping control in the East African nation. This news follows a similar lack of rigor in controlling PED use in Kenya, bringing the very top end of the sport into serious question.
2012 Boston champion Wesley Korir, who was fifth last year and in 2013, won a seat in the Kenyan Parliament in 2013, and has introduced a bill that would place criminal sanctions against any doctor administering PEDs.
“I think we are heading in the right direction,” said the University of Louisville grad. “I think the bill will be passed by next week. The one thing we need to work through is dealing with the dopers themselves. There we are facing problems with WADA. They have a code against criminalizing dope users. But I tell them the issue is you are just giving them time to train (with a two-year ban). WADA needs to be serious. They keep telling Kenya to get its act together, but we are telling them now they need to get their own act together. They are doing more harm to the sport than helping.
“Look at the issue with meldonium (the drug Yemane Tsegay’s wife and tennis star Maria Sharapova tested positive for). At first they said they will punish the athletes for taking it, and now they come back and say they will be lenient (WADA says they still need more science on how long the drug takes to clear the system). But it is either yes or no. You need to solve the problem according to what works best in each country. You cannot have a universal policy. How you solve the problem in America might be completely different than in Kenya. Each country needs to develop its own strategy and laws to fight the problem.”
Back to racing. Two men who are best of friends say they’d like to see Monday’s 120th Boston Marathon come down to a final 100 meter sprint along Boylston Street. Laughing and chiding like kids, two-time Chicago runner up Sammy Kitwara and 2014 Boston second-placer and third man in 2015, Wilson Chebet, argued playfully about how many long runs they had done together in training. Chebet said only two times at 40K training, while Kitwara said four.
“We have changed (training) courses,” said Chebet, who hosts the largest training group in the town of Eldoret. “More high altitude long runs for more endurance.”
The two men met in 2012 and became close because their wives hail from the same village in Marakwet, making them husbands-in-law, of sorts.
This year Chebet says his long runs now climb from Eldoret at 7000’ up to his home village in Marakwet at 11,000’. Plus, he has ramped up his speed sessions from repeat kilometers in 2:57-2:58 to 2:50 per K on the track. After finishing fifth in the heat of 2012, then second to Meb in 2014 and third in 2015 behind Desisa and Tsegay, the 30 year-old is anxious to stand on the top step in Boston on Monday. While Chebet is a three-time Amsterdam and 2014 Honolulu Marathon champion, his pal Kitwara has been atop marathon podiums five times without a win. The one-time half marathon specialist is looking to end that streak as well.
Many other stories of young Ethiopians and the women’s race, of course, not to mention welcome homes to two great anniversary runners, Catherine Ndereba, the four-time champion from Kenya celebrating the 20th anniversary of her first victory, and Rob de Castella, the legendary Aussie who won the first pro race in Boston 30 years ago. More on them in a subsequent blog.