We don’t want to go out too hard here, but as we enter Boston Marathon week 2022, there is an almost giddy anticipation for the 126th running of the grand ole race.
For the first time since 2019, Boston returns to its traditional third Monday in April, Patriot’s Day start. But for the first time since the London Marathon debuted on 29 March 1981, Boston will occupy the choice spring time slot without its great Abbott World Marathon partner and rival.
With the world still finding its footing amidst the Covid pandemic, London has opted to remain in the fall in 2022, as it did last November, where it will compete for talent with Berlin, Chicago, and New York City.
As a result, this year’s Boston men’s field is as top-heavy as any we’ve seen since 1987. Don’t misunderstand. Boston has always had quality fields, but more often than not, London’s have been stronger.
In the sport of marathon running, money is rarely spoken about in polite circles. It is a vestige of the sport’s amateur past. Despite more than three decades of open prize money racing, there remains a somewhat negative connotation to open finances in this sport.
There’s something about awarding money to runners that rubs certain people the wrong way, and always has, especially in Boston. Perhaps it is a residue of the area’s puritanical past, which highly prized frugality, and hid its wealth.
People don’t mind giving sizeable sums to other types of athletes, but for some reason, running doesn’t seem to be worthy or is considered – what, more pristine? There’s almost a snobbery about it. Money is so déclassé, don’t you know?
That’s why the highest pay packets still come as unpublicized individual appearance contracts, or time bonuses, rather than publicly announced price purses.
Over the last two decades, or more, London’s payments have been larger than Boston’s, often significantly. And when you add pacesetters on a flat, loop course, while World Athletics’ rules disqualify point-to-point courses with net elevation drops, like Boston’s, from record recognition, it makes it difficult to lure certain athletes to the difficult Hopkinton to Boston route.
Consider that the last male marathon world record holder to finish in Boston was Welshman Steve Jones (2nd, 1987; 9th, 1988; 11th, 1992). Jonesy set his 2:08:05 WR in Chicago 1984.
Of the last ten world record holders, from Carlos Lopes (2:07:12, Rotterdam 1985) to Eliud Kipchoge (2:01:39, Berlin 2018), only Dennis Kimetto (2:02:57, Berlin 2014) has ever even run Boston. He DNF’d in 2014. None of the other record holders as much as started. You think that was pure happenstance?
If you want a fast marathon, forget Boston (or NYC, for that matter). You have to go to London or Dubai or Chicago or Valencia or Berlin, or Rotterdam (Olympic silver medallist AbdI Nageeye (NED) won today in 2:04:56).
Boston has a fast course record, yes – 2:03:02 by Geoffrey Mutai – but that came in 2011 when a zephyring tailwind at least partially contributed to times that remain outliers in the Boston pantheon of times.
But once you eliminate London as a springtime competitor…
In fact, the current London champion from November 7, 2021, Sisay Lemma of Ethiopia, originally planned to run the Tokyo Marathon March 5th against Eliud Kipchoge on another of the flat, paced, World Marathon Major courses. (Kipchoge won in a workmanlike 2:02:40).
After a minor injury forced Lemma to cancel out of Tokyo, with no London available, he had nowhere to go in the spring other than Boston.
But it took the withdrawals of Kenenisa Bekele, Bernard Koech, and Titus Ekiru from Boston to open funds for Lemma. By coming late to the dance, however, Lemma had to accept a smaller offer than he would’ve received had he signed early, or had London in its regular spring time slot. That’s how the sport works.
All that said, Boston 2022 reminds me of 1987 in terms of outright heft. That race was also loaded with the very best talent in the marathoning world, too. Except for world record holder Kipchoge and American star Galen Rupp, just about every other big name in the sport is competing in Boston or had planned to before injury sidelined them.
1987, you may remember, was year number two for the John Hancock sponsorship program at Boston. After signing on as principal sponsor in 1985, JH realized that the BAA, though dragged into the professional running world of the 20th century by Boston Mayor Ray Flynn, still balked at providing appearance fees to lure the top athletes to the Hub.
To protect their own investment, Hancock hired a private consultant, Pat Lynch, to recruit athletes in what they called their clinic program, but which, in fact, was a veil for appearance fees.
When added to the $300,000 prize purse, Boston was again a major player, in fact, THE major player, as Hancock reoriented the market.
Yet, intentions aside, there wasn’t enough time between their own signing on the line that is dotted and the 1986 race to mount a full recruiting effort.
1983 World Champion Rob de Castella of Australia dominated the 1986 Boston men’s race, breaking away between 10 and 13 miles on his way to a course record 2:07:51. His time masked the lack of depth in the competition. Ingrid Kristiansen of Norway did the same in the women’s race, winning by nearly three minutes.
But in 1987, with one year’s experience, the Hancock program hit on all cylinders. Everyone who was anybody showed up, including the defending champion. But in the end, 1981 winner Toshihiko Seko of Japan emerged as champion in a taut, but tactical race contested in humid conditions.
In 2022, every Boston champion dating to 2013 will be back except Meb Keflezighi, the 2014 champion, who has since retired. In all, six previous Boston men’s champions will be on the start line in Hopkinton.
Lelisa Desisa the 2013 and 2015 champ (and two-time runner-up) from Ethiopia will lead countryman Lemi Berhanu, the 2016 champion, Geoffrey Kirui of Kenya, the 2017 winner, Yuki Kawauchi of Japan, the 2018 title holder, Lawrence Cherono, the 2019 champion, and fellow Kenyan Benson Kipruto the defending 2021 champion.
There will be so much experience on the course, no secrets or bluffs will prevail on 18 April. To win this race will require raw power and maybe the guts of a second-story burglar.
On top of that, you’ve got the reigning New York City Marathon champion in Albert Korir; two-time previous New York City Marathon champion and three-time World Half Marathon champion, Geoffrey Kamworor; 2019 & 2020 Tokyo champion, Birhanu Legese; and the reigning London champion, Sisay Lemma of Ethiopia. The race is littered with championship quality athletes.
Boston number 126 could be one for the ages. Though despite what looks like a perfect day from a long-range forecast – mid-40s Fahrenheit to start, only mid-50s for the high for the day – it might not be a fast one for the ages. It rarely is in Boston with its rolling hills and lack of pacers.
Plus, anytime you put that many good people together on the starting line, it takes somebody special to spark the action.
Last year American C.J. Albertson flew out of Hopkinton like a Roman candle, hitting mile one in 4:30. But the prime contenders didn’t know who he was and didn’t take him seriously. They were 20 seconds behind after that opening 1609 meters. They were 2:13 in arrears at the halfway mark.
That deficit still didn’t give them pause, because they knew they would eventually run Albertson down. Which they did after cresting Heartbreak Hill at 21 miles. 14 guys went blowing by on the way to what old John Kelley used to call The Haunted Mile between the top of Heartbreak and the start of the run down Beacon Street in Cleveland Circle, my old haunt.
But remember 2014, too, when Meb Keflezighi, who at the time was an Olympic silver medalist and a New York City Marathon champion, developed a significant lead after 8 miles that extended to one minute atop Heartbreak Hill. The big boys back then dismissed Meb like last year’s favorites ignored C.J. But in 2014, they never did run Meb down, though Wilson Chebet got within sniffin’ distance at Kenmore Square with one mile to go.
Those two races, alone, validate the no-pacer policy in Boston. Racing requires critical thinking that paced competition don’t, or least delays.
In 2011, when the weather was absolutely beyond perfect – as happens about once a decade in Boston – it fell to American Ryan Hall to bust hard from the start, vowing not to waste the perfect day. And because the rest of the field respected Hall as a serious talent, they quickly hooked up their tow bars. Eventually, the effort led to Geoffrey Mutai’s 2:03:02 course record.
But if one of the heavies doesn’t go…
The Marathon is a numbers game. Generally, 1/3 of the field has a good day, 1/3 has a bad day, 1/3 as an average day, which means two out of the six previous champions are likely to have a good day. And with such a strong overall field, there’s every probability that another handful of men are going to be ON come a week from Monday.
With a field this deep in talent and savvy, it is hard to see anybody getting away until the very latter stages. We could easily have a repeat of the 2019 race when Lawrence Cherono and Lelisa Desisa came flying down Boylston Street shoulder to shoulder in one of the great sprint finishes in Boston history.
And we haven’t even started on the women’s race yet, or the American men. Another killer field there, as well. What a day we have in store.
On Patriot’s Day, I will share local broadcasting duties once again with Olympic Marathon medalist and former American record holder Deena Kastor and CBS4 anchor Lisa Hughes. Can’t wait. Hope to see many of you there.