Back home in San Diego now, after another memorable Boston Marathon week. I flew back on the same flight as Marathon Grand Marshall and 2014 champion Meb Keflezighi, who carried a Gronk-signed New England Patriots football helmet along with the good wishes of dozens of blue-jacket clad marathon finishers.
During the long, cross-country trip, I chatted with row-mate Elisa Wiggins, a native San Diegan and Brown University grad who was dealing with some dire quads after Monday’s race.
But the long flight also gave me a chance to reflect on what we had witnessed in the 123rd running of the world’s most famous long-distance race.
As in all sports, so too, in the marathon, there is a fine line between winning and losing. That margin in Monday’s 123rd Boston Marathon men’s race, the difference between first and second, 2:07:57 for champion Lawrence Cherono and 2:07:59 for runner-up Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia, a difference of 0.0002% over a 128-minute span.
Nobody I’ve talked to saw anything close to a two-second spread.
“They were still shoulder-to-shoulder with 10 meters left,” said Gianni Demadonna, the manager of decisive women’s winner, Worknesh Degefa.
It makes no difference. Time was secondary. Cherono clearly won as Desisa slumped in his final stride, knowing his was a lost cause.
So, did Cherono win, or Desisa lose?
The day before the 123rd Boston Marathon, Lelisa Desisa’s manager Hussein Makke told me, “Only Desisa can beat Desisa.” That’s how confident the two-time champ was coming in off his well recovered well from 2:05:59 win in New York City last November 2018.
Then, in speaking with Hussein the night after the race, he suggested Desisa had lost it more than Cherono had won it. In essence, “only Desisa can beat Desisa.”
We all tell ourselves what we must in order to get by. Athletes at the end of their tether are in a fragile state. Imagine the colliding emotions: the crowd is swelling, your system is throbbing, yet you’ve come to a complete stop after two hours of exertion topped off by a dead sprint. It’s overwhelming.
THE FINAL STRETCH
As the three leading men took the right-hand turn from Comm Ave onto Hereford Street for the two-block run up to Boylston Street, WBZ-TV commentator Shalane Flanagan and I were trying to decide who had the advantage.
Shalane suggested that somebody was going to move on Hereford because that was the last rise on the course, the last opportunity to grind somebody off.
And in fact, that’s what 2013 and 2015 champ Desisa did. Downshifting, he carved the inside tangent as thin as a slice of European breakfast ham. This was the veteran, putting his experience to good use.
In just a few steps, Rotterdam champion Kenneth Kipkemoi, the third man in the hunt, gave way even as Amsterdam and Honolulu course record holder Lawrence Cherono answered.
Desisa turned onto Boylston Street as the throngs pressed closer to the fencing, their sound a mighty force reverberating off the red brick-face of the old Back Bay.
LESSONS OF HISTORY
We had seen this kind of finish before (what have we not seen in this century-old Classic?). Perhaps most memorably in recent years in 2011. Then, too, the long haul had come down to three finalists with the women’s race still up for grabs as Boylston Street beckoned.
American Des Linden (then Davila) had herself hooked up in a Boylston Street clash with Kenyans, Caroline Kilel and Sharon Cherop.
Down from Gloucester to Fairfield, Des got a step on Kilel as Cherop fell off. But Des couldn’t hold the burn. In the last block, Kilel made one final push and crossed two seconds up. And two seconds that looked like two seconds, not the two seconds on Monday. (Interesting how both Sharon Cherop, 2012, and Des, 2018, came back to win in ensuing years).
Lelisa Desisa’s form is deceptive. He shuffles like a Vegas dealer, like he’s pushing hard through the shallow end of the pool. Yet he can motor like a madman when he needs to.
For his part, Cherono carries his arms high while cruising. It’s a metabolically efficient style more in line with the Ethiopian method. The question we had was whether he could drive, lift and extend from a tight, efficient stride.
Desisa held the advantage down the alphabetically named cross streets intersecting Boylston. Hereford, then Gloucester and Fairfield to Exeter before they hit the line halfway down to Dartmouth Street in front of the BPL, the Boston Public Library.
It’s a 600-meter push from the final turn. You can see the blue-draped finish structure and its electronic clock the whole way.
Desisa had laid claim to this stretch of road twice before and thought he had again on Monday. And so, according to his agent Makke, thinking the victory was in hand, thinking Cherono, like Kipkemoi before him, had been beaten, Desisa psychologically relaxed for a split second, taking his foot off the intensity before breaking the tape.
I don’t know. You make the call after watching the final stretch run.
Did it look like Desisa relaxed at Exeter? Or before that? Does “only Desisa can beat Desisa” dismiss champion Cherono?
Or do we all tell ourselves what we have to? Better to lay blame on ourselves, rather than framing it as a loss we incurred.
“Let me not give up,” was how Lawrence Cherono recalled the stretch run at yesterday’s post-Marathon day press conference at the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel. “Anything can happen. It was very hard. The opponent was very strong. But to be the winner motivated me.”
Having spoken to all the contenders in the days leading up to the big race, Cherono and Desisa had emerged as the two favorites with 2017 champ Geoffrey Kirui right there, as well.
Cherono arrived noted for his course records in Honolulu and Amsterdam (Honolulu champions always perform well in Boston). And Desisa, not just for his two victories in Boston but that career-resurrecting win in New York City last fall in the second fastest winning time in that glorious event’s history, 2:05:59.
There were many athletes who carried hope into Hopkinton for the 123rd running of the Boston Marathon. But the ones to watch were those who came with intention, too.
Hope is passive, intention active. With margins of .0002% over a 128-minute span, that difference is what makes sports so compelling. It’s all in the margins.