How militant will the pace be?
Boston 2022 celebrates the 50th anniversary of women being officially accepted into the grand old race. And what a half-century it’s been. We can only imagine what the next 50 will hold, but if it’s anything like the last five decades…
The long-range weather forecast for Monday’s 126th Boston Marathon portends one of those once-a-decade days like 1975, ’83, and 1994 when the conditions and the field match up for potential record runs from Hopkinton to Boston. Not that records make a race any grander than a stirring competition. But sometimes we get both, like the last great day we caught in 2011.
That Patriot’s Day Kenyans Geoffrey “The Raptor” Mutai and Moses “Big Engine” Mosop flew the course like none before, and none since. Mutai breasted the tape in a still standing course record 2:03:02 with what people still think was a buffeting tail wind pushing from the west. Mosop was only four-seconds behind in second place.
Mutai broke the course record by a whopping 2:50. Many of the athletes and their managers, to this day, decry the tailwind hypothesis, saying only after the turn at the fire station at 17 3/4 miles did the wind push directly from behind. Until then it was quartering or swirling, but certainly not helpful.
One way to show it was as much the man as the conditions is to look at Mutai’s performance six months later in New York City. There, he lowered the course record by 2:35, landing it at 2:05:06. NYC, being a loop course, had no tailwind issue to point to. Mutai’s times in Boston and NYC 2011 have remained impervious, even to the new super shoes revolution. The closest anyone has come to equaling his NYC record was two-time Boston champion Lelisa Desisa, who ran 2:05:59 winning in 2018.
In Boston, 2011’s times hold seven of the top ten in race history, which points to the conditions fairly convincingly. The fastest time not from that year was 2:05:52 by Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot (not the four-time champ), who won in 2010.
This year both the men’s and women’s fields are loaded for bear, due, in no small part, to the absence of the London Marathon on the spring calendar. I have already looked at the men’s race in my last post. Today, a quick rundown on the women.
The women’s field will pit the reigning Olympic and New York City Marathon champion, Peres Jepchirchir, against the reigning London Marathon champion, Joyceline Jepkosgei. These two are the number one and two lady Marathoners in the world today (with apologies, and a good argument going to world record holder and Olympic silver medalist Brigid Kosgei).
But each of the three times Peres and Joyciline have matched up to date, Peres has come out on top. First, they raced at the 2017 RAK Half Marathon in the United Arab Emirates. There, Joyceline finished third behind Peres’s win (1:06;08 vs. 1:05:06). Next, they hooked horns at the World Half Marathon championships in Poland in 2020 where Joyceline finished sixth while Peres collected her first gold medal (1:06;58 vs 1:05:16). Later that fall, they clashed at the Valencia Marathon in Spain. Again, Peres got the better of her countrywoman, (2:17:16 to 2:18:40) as the pair went first and second. Sometimes, somebody just has your number. We will see what Joyciline plans to do about it next Monday.
Both women share the same manager, and when we communicated, I felt by his tone he was less than thrilled that his two stablemates had to go head-to-head in Boston. If Old London were in play, you can be sure we wouldn’t be so lucky to get Monday’s match-up in New England.
It is one ill of the sport that the best rarely goes head up against the other bests. But that’s the way the system has developed. Rankings and World Majors mean a lot. So athletes tend to avoid confrontation and go for the more assured win until they hit the Olympics or World Champs. It takes a pandemic to deliver the kind of Seabiscuit vs. War Admiral thrill ride from Pimilico1938 in footracing.
But we can’t simply reduce the race to the two super Kenyan ladies next Monday. There are no sure things in this game outside Eliud Kipchoge.
There is another 2:17 female marathoner coming to Hopkinton, 23-year-old Ethiopian Degitu Azimeraw. The young Ethiopian ran 2:17:58 last October to finish second to Joyceline at the London Marathon. Her other two marathons also timed out sub-2:20, as she took fifth (2:19:56) in Valencia 2020 against Peres (1st) and Joyceline (2nd). She also won Amsterdam in 2019 in 2:19:26.
Ethiopia’s other contenders, Ababel Yeshaneh – 3rd at New York City 2021 (2:22:52), and 2nd in Chicago 2019 – and Etagegn Woldu (PB 2:20:16) – 2nd at the 2021 Valencia Marathon in her debut – are late additions to the field.
There are always late scratches and adds to major marathon fields. It’s in the nature of a game that plays at the edges. To me, late adds always raise something of a red flag because the implication is the original focus wasn’t on this race primarily, and only came when another opportunity either fell away or an injury sidelined them for a spell, and now they are looking for a race. Not that they can’t do well, but more often than not, the late ads don’t win races. They sure can add to the mix, though.
Another podium contender is the ageless Edna Kiplagat from Kenya. The 42-year-old queen of women’s marathoning is back in the Hub for her fifth go. She was a winner in 2017, runner-up the last two Bostons, and ninth in the hurricane year of 2018 when she froze to death. She is the most experienced in the field, and the fastest closer. Her record in 22 Abbott World Marathon Majors consists of five wins and 13 podium positions, including seven second places. She has also won back-to-back World Marathon Championships in 2011 and 2013 and brought home the silver medal in 2017. At age 42 she’s not the same 2:19 athlete she was in London 2012, but she will not make any mistakes, either.
Of course, the Americans offer plenty of challenge to any potential winner. Boston-based Olympic bronze medalist Molly Seidel will lead the charge. In her last foray, the diminutive Notre Dame grad finished fourth at New York City in November. Her 2:24:42 time was the fastest ever posted by an American woman in New York City. That said, she was not among the breakaway threesome that decided the race from the Bronx to the last mile, led by Peres Jepchirchir followed by the Viola Cheptoo, who ran 2:22:44 in her debut at the distance and Ababel Yeshaneh in third in 2:22:52.
Viola Cheptoo is an interesting case. Though an Olympian at 1500m in Rio 2016, she has been very much a journey woman runner with tons of road races behind her when she stepped to the line in NYC. Nobody picked her for the podium based on her past road results. But, like American Sarah Hall, who competed across the spectrum from 1500 meters to the half-marathon before finding her wheelhouse at the full distance, Viola seemed to find her calling over 42K in NYC, too. She has run in Boston before, taking second at BAA 5K 2019.
Perhaps the sentimental favorite will be Des Linden, who will be back for her ninth run over the rolling route. Winner in the hurricane east wind year of 2018, and second in 2011, the two-time Olympian only managed 17th in 2021. But the current world record holder at 50km on the road could probably run the course blindfolded and still hang tough. She wants one more shot at glory in Boston as she moves to the ultras and the broadcast booth.
However it plays out, there are innumerable storylines to savor and a great opportunity to celebrate the 50th anniversary of women being officially welcomed into the Boston Marathon. New York’s Nina Kuscsik was the 1972 winner, and she, along with many of the pioneers who ran that first year, will attend to great applause.
I’ll try to have updates when I hit town and go through the Friday press conference and chat with managers and coaches. Till then, stay safe, stay well, and keep your fingers crossed that the weather they predict comes true. Over and out for now.