Boston, Ma. – The Marathon is such a challenging distance that most athletes have no desire to take it on solo. Instead, they form up in packs, serving as confederates through much of its length, working as one until they come to the final third of the course where the real racing begins and the winning is generally done.
That’s exactly how the men’s race played out yesterday at the 123rd Boston Marathon with the outcome in doubt til the final 5 meters when Kenya’s Lawrence Cherono prevailed against two-time Ethiopian winner Lelisa Desisa. It was thrilling stuff, indeed.
But as my broadcast partner on WBZ-TV4 Shalane Flanagan said, “the women’s race was the polar opposite.”
In that competition, the short but powerful Worknesh Degefa of Ethiopia gently but convincingly went to the front in Ashland and began to turn the screw after reaching only the second of eight cities and towns that make up the historic Boston course.
“After 4 miles the pace was too slow,“ 28 year-old Degefa said at today’s day-after press conference. “So I decided to take off. I kept going and that made me a winner.”
The last time we saw a move this bold this early in a major race was way back in 1984 when Maine’s Joanie Benoit pulled away from the inaugural Women’s Olympic Marathon field in Los Angeles at 5km and ran alone to win the first women’s Olympic Marathon gold-medal. Her time of 2:24:52 stood as the Olympic record for many cycles. It was only bested as the fastest time west of the Mississippi River this past March at the Los Angeles Marathon.
Yesterday it was with seeming ease that Worknesh Degefa gradually eased away from a pack that included four previous Boston women champions. They knew that this was the fastest woman in the field with her 2:17:41 performance at the January 25th Dubai Marathon. But maybe because it was her first attempt on the technically challenging Boston route with its rolling hills and iconic Heartbreak Hill, that they figured she would come back and they could reel her back in.
That was the same strategy employed by the great champions of the 1980s in LA 1984, champions like Greta Waitz, Ingrid Kristiansen, Rosa Mota, Lisa Martin, Lorraine Moller, and Anne Audain. They all thought that the distance would take its toll on Joanie. But neither Joanie nor Worknesh ever faltered.
Yes, in LA ‘84 Grete did close the gap in the final stages. But she never got within hunting distance. And yesterday the great Kenyan champion Edna Kiplagat, the 2017 Boston winner and two-time world champion put on a massive push through the Boston Hills down Beacon Street onto the Commonwealth Avenue. But it was not nearly enough.
Degefa had built a 2:59 advantage by 30km, and then played that advantage perfectly even as the distance began to take its toll. At the finish line on Boylston Street, she was still 42-seconds up on the 2017 champ.
This performance makes Degefa a real Olympic threat in Tokyo 2020. Because it’s one thing to run well in Dubai on a dead-flat course, with excellent weather, and a paced format. Quite another to be out alone on the rolling hills of Boston with tens of thousands of people screaming in your ears urging you on, running all alone with nothing but a huge target on your back and no experience knowing what lies ahead.
“Yes, I was nervous if I should push by myself,” Worknesh admitted through an interpreter. “At 25k there was nobody around, and I was a little worried. Then I had another gear, and the crowd gave me a push. So although I ran by myself, I didn’t run alone. I ran with the crowd.”
All athletes make sacrifices in preparation for a Marathon, whether it’s a professional athlete or just a Boston qualifier. For Worknesh, who lives in Asela, Ethiopia with her husband and coach Berhanu Dub, the sacrifice came in the way of diet.
Last night after the awards’ ceremony Worknesh and a group of Ethiopians went over to Jamaica Plain to the Blue Nile Restaurant which serves the best Injera in town. There she had a veggie combo, her first injera for four months.
Asked why she gave up Ethiopia’s spicy national food for so long, Worknesh said, “because I run a lot in training, it is hard for me to digest injera in time (remember, it’s very spicy). So my first excuse was the Dubai Marathon (in January), so I kept going until after Boston.”
Though her winning time in Boston was 2:23:31, nearly six minutes slower than her 2:17: 41 second place finish in Dubai, she puts Boston well above her Ethiopian national record.
“This is a big deal winning Boston,” she said. “The time from Dubai may eventually go, but the Boston win will stay with me til the day I die.”
As it has for every Boston champion since 1897.
BAA executive director Tom Grilk, Board President Dr. Michael O’Leary and race director Dave McGillivray all called the 123rd running of Boston the most challenging they had ever seen. And all three men have been around the marathon for over 40 years.
“The first thing I saw when I arrived in Hopkinton was a bolt of lightning,” said Dr. O’Leary, whose father used to check runners hearts before the start when Michael was only a boy. “It was frightening. I wondered whether we would be able to do this thing.”
As Dave concurred, “we had to prepare for everything, cold, heat, thunder, lightning, wind. In recent years we’ve experienced it all including that volcano eruption a few years ago. And now thunder and lightning, we’ve got a plan for that, too. That’s the toughest part of managing the event. Weather is the one thing we can’t control.
“In other years, even planning for that nor’easter in 2007 and the big heat of 2012 was easier because we knew what lie ahead. But this year it was a moving target all week long. It kept changing and changing until the very start of the race. We didn’t know what we were really dealing with until the very last moment.”
In that sense, a huge thanks to the 9700 volunteers who showed up to help the thousands of runners, 27,367 who started, 26,632 who finished, a 97.4% completion rate, which is pretty standard.
“Runners can run in any conditions,” McGillivray noted. “It’s not always possible to manage an event in any conditions. But it was possible with this BAA team.”
It was another grand day for what is a grand event. Congratulations to all who achieved their goals yesterday or tried mightily in their attempt. See you next year.