Boston MA – What were the Pilgrims thinking? Did you feel it? Yeah, that was springtime that blew through Boston yesterday for about two hours from 9 till 11 am. Then winter came roaring back on a raw, east wind that had everyone scrambling back to their hotel rooms for more hats, gloves and turtlenecks. And with rain and even sleet coming today with temperatures never out of the mid 30s, maybe we should be thankful that Monday’s 122nd Boston Marathon only predicts temps in the 40-50s with rain and strong headwinds.
But that’s New England, always something to overcome, from its rocky earth to its unrelenting winters. But as Boulder Wave Agency head Brendan Reilly, an old Bostonian himself, said to his client, defending women’s champ Edna Kiplagat, “three hours after the start somebody is going to be standing up on that podium with the mayor receiving a trophy as champion. So it might as well be you.”
Good, stoic New England advice, that, but hard to implement just the same. Though training has gone very well, Edna does not like cold and rainy conditions, only placing 14th in her tune up half marathon in Japan in 73:45. “I never ran in snow before.” Just the same, this is the most accomplished runner in the field, so never write her off, even at age 38.
Since this Boston women’s field was first announced, the feeling that this would be the year for an American woman to win this race for the first time since Lisa Weidenbach (now Rainsberger) in 1985 has been strong. Now with the withdrawl of the Olympic silver medalist Eunice Kirwa of Bahrain, and slight injury reports on Ethiopians Mamitu Daska (slight ankle problem after 3rd in New York last fall) and Buzu Deba (missed a week of training with a tweaked left knee), that leaves 3x Dubai champion Aselefech Mergia, 2015 Boston champ Caroline Rotich, newcomer Gladys Chesir and defending champ Edna Kiplagat as the main challenge to the four top Americans.
But Rotich has dropped out of the last two Bostons, and hasn’t popped a good one since she won in the cold and rain of Boston 2015. For her part, though she carries a 2:19:31 best, Mergia ran her PR six years ago and has only run one non-paced marathon with hills in her career (2nd, 2015 NYC),
Gladys Chesir is a newcomer, but hasn’t shown to be a winner in her track and cross country career leading into her 2:24:51 2nd place debut in flat Amsterdam last fall.
When was the last time it would have been considered an upset for an American woman not to win Boston? Certainly never in the prize money era. But that’s where we are before Monday’s 122nd Boston Marathon.
Nobody wants it more than Shalane Flanagan, the Marblehead, Mass. native who front ran so bravely in 2014, only to end up seventh in 2:22 on the day that Kenya’s Rita Jeptoo crossed the line first in 2:18, only to be disqualified later for an EPO drug positive, elevating Buzu Deba to the champion’s position and her 2:19:59 as the course record.
Shalane thought about retiring after last fall’s win in NYC, but the lure of her hometown race was too great. She’s ready, and the crowd will be solidly behind her, but her win in New York last November also took the pressure off for Boston. She already has a major now, so can race more freely on Patriots Day, a huge psychological advantage.
The one question, and it’s one Shalane is aware of, is her long, reaching stride. As 1983 men’s champion Greg Meyer said, “it might not be suited for this course”, meaning her form leads to eccentric muscle contractions on the downhills, which can lead to late race breakdowns, especially in the cold and rain.
But in speaking with her coach Jerry Schumacher after the technical meeting this afternoon, he said “the lightbulb went off early last year before Boston before her back issue forced her to withdraw. She realized, well, the Marathon just clicked. She got it. And then with the build up to New York City in 2017 I just could tell she was a different marathoner than the last time. Like she reached a tipping point.”
According to sources, last year’s third-placer in 2:23:00, Jordan Hasay, is still dealing with that slight plantar bfascia problem that held her pull out of the IAAF World Half Marathon Championship in Valencia, Spain last month. In that sense, she’s where her Nike Oregon Track Club teammate Galen Rupp was last year before taking second at Boston. It’s not that she’s not ready. In fact, “I’m much more confident this year”, it’s that things weren’t perfect in the build up. And generally, perfect is what’s needed for victory.
Desi Linden has been training for years in Michigan, so the weather won’t be an issue for her. She’s been 18th, 2nd, 8th, 4th, and 4th in her five Boston starts, and with more experience most likely would have won that 2011 four-woman sprint down Boylston Street. But she kicked a block too early, and got gunned down at end by Kenya’s Caroline Kilel.
Desi took last fall off from a marathon – “I’d run three in a row and was exhausted physically and emotionally and needed a break. I’m 34 and didn’t want to keep banging my head against wall.”
For this cycle, she dropped her mileage a smidge and upped her speed sessions, knowing that gear-changing is what she needs to have to go over the top. Especially when speed burners like Shalane and Molly Huddle lurk with an Olympic track medal (Shalane) and a raft of American records (Molly).
I spoke with Molly’s agent Ray Flynn the other day, and he wished Coach Ray Treacy hadn’t have been quite so positive publicly about Molly’s preparedness. But if that’s how the coach feels…
“We are confident she can go with anyone in Boston.”
The key to Huddle’s chances are the lack of experience, having only one 26-miler behind her – 3rd in New York 2016 after her Olympic 10,000. From Edna to Shalane to Jordan to Desi, all her opponents have an understanding of not only the distance but the tricky Boston course.
With the bad weather expected, the chances that anyone will be aggressive early, like Shalane in 2014, are slim. That plays to Molly’s advantage, as she’s the top shorter distance racer in the field.
“Every mile that goes by (without somebody moving), you smile,” said Coach Treacy.
Mexico’s Madai Perez is a solid internationalist. This will be her third Boston start after third in 2007 when the conditions were so bad race officials almost called the race off, then took 7th in 2013. This mother of two said she’s in better shape now than for Chicago last fall where she took fourth in 2:24.
All in all, it’s a strong field, but weighted toward the Americans. But as Shalane proved in New York last year, even the best in the world can go down on a given day. So nobody will be blown away by an American win on Monday. Blown off course, maybe, but not blown away.
NOW, about those Pilgrims and their decision to hunker down along the east coast rather than keep moving west…