It happened before. Remember?
America’s Meb Keflezighi pulled away from the lead pack after 8 miles and opened what turned out to be an insurmountable lead in the 119th Boston Marathon. By the time the chasers decided to do something about it, it was too late.
When Meb topped Heartbreak Hill at 33 Km, (21 miles), he held a one minute margin and plenty of running left in his legs. Though Wilson Chebet came on as strong as a Catholic boy fresh from the confessional down Beacon Street, closing to within six seconds with a mile to go in Kenmore Square, Meb had enough in reserve to put a few more seconds on the Kenyan along the homestretch to become the first American man to win in 31 years. Thrilling stuff, especially the year after the tragic bombings. It almost made us believe in redemption. And how we cheered.
Again, at yesterday’s 125th Boston Marathon, in yet another year when the running community looked longingly to Boston to help bring them together after a cathartic time, an American man went to the front and began to pull away.
This time it was Fresno, California native CJ Albertson, a 2017 graduate of Arizona State and runner up in June’s Grandmas Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota (2:14:29). What made CJ’s dash even better was he was celebrating his 28th birthday on Marathon Monday. But Albertson didn’t wait until eight miles like Meb in 2014. He lit out of Hopkinton like they were giving away free iPhone 13 Pros on Boylston Street.
The self-proclaimed, though somewhat tongue in cheek, “best downhill runner in the world” tumbled down the steep drop off the starting line in full flight, no fear. He blitzed the first mile in 4:30, 29 seconds up on the big pack behind. Not since the early flights of Kenyan runners came to Boston in the late 1980s had we witnessed such a ballsy beginning.
But just as in 2014 with Meb, it wasn’t that the super-charged chasers didn’t take heed of the American out front and, after conducting a cost-benefit analysis, judged him no real threat in the long run. No, they just plain didn’t realize he was out there.
Hard to believe, I know. That’s the tricky thing about the marathon. There are so many dynamics going on within an elite pack, that you’re not always aware of what’s going on up the road or even in the front row.
Today’s post race press conference at the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel, I asked men’s champion Benson Kipruto when he realized CJ Anderson was still up the road in the lead. He said when he saw the lead vehicle with a clock on the back as the pack was going up the Boston Hills.
Well, where did you think that car and clock was the entire race if it wasn’t with you guys?!
Situational awareness is part of racing. It’s a critical part of racing. Men’s wheelchair champion Marcel Hug found that out the hard way. He got so locked into trying to break his own 2017 course record (1:18:04) and collect the $50,000 bonus that went with it, that he blew right past the right turn onto Hereford Street off Comm Ave as he followed the lead vehicle off course.
Needing to retrace his error cost him just enough time to miss the record by seven seconds and the $50,000 bonus.
Racing hard at the end of one’s tether involves tremendous concentration. But it’s concentration focused on internal systems monitoring and judging the strengths and weaknesses of your proximate opponents.
You simply don’t think much beyond that. So as CJ Albertson continued to lop off 4:55 miles, and the chase pack of talented men continued to search for a leader and dawdle – hell, their 15k-20k split was 16:08! – the lead continued to expand.
The gap spread to 2:13 at halfway, which CJ passed in 64:08. But as he neared the hills, the expected began to happen, his form began to corrupt, his split times slowed, and once the pack finally saw the lead vehicle, their chase took on a menacing quality.
If Albertson had just run that second 5K a little bit slower – he did it in 14:35 coming off a 14:29 first 5K – he might’ve had something left for the hills that might’ve carried him over the top. But that’s just lack of experience on the Boston course. He’s great on the downhills, but now knows he needs to work on the ups. If he could’ve just dialed it back a little bit…well, next time he comes, he’ll be much better prepared and have a great experience to go off of.
Turns out that champion Benson Kipruto was coming to town full of confidence ready for any kind of race. The experience of finishing 10th in 2019 informed him he needed to do more downhill training to protect himself from the Boston course. He put three uninterrupted months into his Boston training cycle. Then he saw two of his training mates run well in London last week. Vincent Kipchumba took second, and Evans Chebet finished fourth.
When I asked him who he was fearful of in that 13 man final lead pack, he mentioned Lemi Berhanu of Ethiopia, the 2016 Boston Marathon champion. Though Berhanu had dropped out in four of his last five marathons, and even his manager Gianni DeMadonna didn’t have full faith that he was ever going to return to a major marathon podium, Benson felt that the tall Ethiopian was the man he really had to watch before he made his winning move atop Heartbreak Hill. Turns out he was right, as Lemi came home in second place in 2:10:37.
I also asked Benson about 2017 Boston champion Geoffrey Kirui, who was a noticeable pack leader throughout the day in his orange shorts and white top. But Benson said he wasn’t concerned, because having raced Kirui in 2019, Geoffrey finished fifth to Kipruto’s tenth, “I knew his tactics.”
Interestingly, Kipruto thought that the weather in 2019 was more difficult than yesterday. Though the humidity was high on Monday in Boston, the temperature wasn’t that warm, 59F in Hopkinton at the start. And yet Benson’s time in 10th in 2019, 2:09:53, was only two seconds slower than his winning time of 2021. But when he made his move over Heartbreak, he didn’t just turn the screw, he hammered the nail such that no one could respond.
Talked to Hoka Northern Arizona Elite coach Ben Rosario, too. His men, Scott Fauble and Scott Smith, ran 16th and 17th, respectively, well off their best or anticipated places.
“First time since we’ve been coming to Boston that we didn’t get at least one man in the top 15,” said Coach Rosario.
Ben said he will have to go back and talk to his scientists, because his athletes were well prepared. And Fauble spoke confidently on Friday about winning the race if things broke for him. But something didn’t go right and they just have to go back and try to figure it out why.
It’s a tricky game, this marathon thing, especially on the rolling Boston course where there are no pacers and enthusiastic crowds that can push you harder than you realize.
They will all have a chance to try again in 188 days come April 18, 2022. Hope you can join us, too,