With marathon world record holder Eliud Kipchoge making his Boston Marathon debut next Monday, the anticipation for the 127th edition of the grand old race has rarely been higher. Kipchoge has openly stated he wants not only to win, but set course records on all six Abbott World Marathon Major courses. He already holds those marks in Tokyo, London, and Berlin. He has won in Chicago, but not in record time, while still having New York City on his to-do list.
In Boston, he will face the last two years’ Boston champions in countrymen Benson Kipruto and Evans Chebet. He will also have to contend with the last man to win a marathon at which Kipchoge didn’t emerge victorious, Ethiopian Shura Kitata, whose 2:05:41 in London 2020 relegated Kipchoge to eighth place at 2:06:49. An inner ear issue was the primary culprit, knocking Kipchoge off kilter, but Kitata still knows the feeling of having the great man on his backside.
The record at Boston stands at 2:03:02, set in 2011 when Geoffrey Mutai edged countryman, Moses Mosop, by just four seconds under the most ideal conditions imaginable – 44F at the start with 15-20mph westerly winds. American Ryan Hall laid down an early pace that never waned.
Only mile 18 going up the Brae Burn hill after the turn off Route 16 onto Commonwealth Avenue at Newton’s Firestation No. 2 required five minutes. Every other mile split, including the 21st up Heartbreak Hill (4:43) began with a four.
And except for the freefall down into Newton Lower Falls from Wellesley from mile 15 to 16, which took a mere 4:24, the fastest mile of the 2011 race came in the last mile (4:26) as Mutai had to open his stride to hold off his occasional training mate, Mosop. The final 10K in 2011 sailed by in only 28:29!
All of which Kipchoge is more than capable of duplicating or improving upon, especially given the modern shoe technology. But he will need help. Without designated pacers, someone the field fears, or at least respects, has to get things rolling, like Hall did in 2011.
Marathons are funny things from a psychological standpoint. If one guy goes, they all go. But if nobody goes, the race turns tactical quickly once the realization that a fast time isn’t in the offing. Doesn’t take long for either mindset to establish dominion, either. Even if someone does take it out, it can just be anyone. The big guns have to take the early mover seriously.
2021’s field didn’t when American C.J. Albertson opened with a 4:30 mile out of Hopkinton and led all the way to Heartbreak Hill before getting swallowed up by the pack. There’s an understandable arrogance to elites of any kind; runners are no different. Once caught, though, C.J. didn’t fold. He rode in the new leaders’ wake for the rest of the race before finishing in a well-earned tenth place.
In 2014’s race, the high masters in the field failed to show enough respect for 2004 Olympic silver medalist and 2009 New York City Marathon champion, Meb Keflezighi, who, at age 39, eased away with Josephat Boit around 15K, before building a solo lead that stood at 59-seconds atop Heartbreak Hill at mile 21. And despite a late-race charge by Wilson Chebet that chewed through much of that lead, he didn’t consume it all.
Meb gave the full measure of his running honor to the finish line bombing’s fallen from the year before, their names written upon his bib as he broke the American men’s winless streak in Boston that went back to Greg Meyer‘s victory in 1983.
Ironically, the better the quality of the field, the less likely one of the genuine contenders will risk an early move, especially if the weather isn’t ideal. Winning is still the goal for every invited athlete. A course record is the cherry atop the cake, but the cake is still the thing, even for Kipchoge.
It’s easy to forget, too, marathoning has been his second career. I was looking back over my journal #176 covering March and April 2011, which includes all my Boston notes from that year. In it, I saw on Sunday, 3 April, Eliud Kipchoge finished second to Ethiopia’s Dejen Gebremeskel at the Carlsbad 5000 out in California, 13:11 to 13:13.
E.K. ran Carlsbad three years in a row, 2010-2012, winning in 2010 in his road PR, 13:11, while showing third in 2012 behind Ethiopian Hagos Gebrhiwet, with both men timed in 13:14 behind another 13:11 win by Gebremeskel.
Today, with a near decades’ worth of marathon excellence that dwarfs his own youthful days and any other man or woman’s ten-year marathon span, he is now in Boston ready to take on the historic route that traces the history of the sport.
To add his name to the list of Boston champions is a mighty inducement to a man as steeped in history as Kipchoge. But as if to honor his status in the sport, BAA Director of Professional Athletes, Mary Kate Shea, has assembled a most notable and worthy list of challengers. No free rides to the Boylston Street podium.
But if Kipchoge only concentrates on the competition, he will make the most basic of Boston errors. More than in any other world major, not just the distance, but the course itself remains the number one opponent.
I first learned that truism from 1976 U.S. Olympian Don Kardong before the 1978 race, where he finished seventh in 2:14:07 behind Bill Rodgers’ 2:10:13 two-second win over the hard-charging Texan Jeff Wells.
With so much anticipation attending the Kipchoge run at Boston, it’s hard to imagine everything going right on the day. We rarely find fitness and fortune aligned. His career may not have shown it yet, but every other man’s marathon career is dotted with might-have-beens, could-have-beens, and wish-I-couldas.
Holding 13 wins in 15 starts, Kipchoge has erected a singular marathon CV. But every next time out, the odds against excellence continue to rise. And like with the PGA Tour of old, when you put that many outstanding athletes on the same course over an extended period, more than one is going to have a good day. And that would seem especially so for the past champions who know their way around the tricky Boston layout.
Still, it will be hard not to root for the guy come next Monday. It would honor the event to engrave his name on their trophy. As for betting on him, that’s for braver souls. He may yet be automatic, but I’ll take my chances with the field. All said with the elephant of a caveat, this is but conventional wisdom, written in this ongoingly unconventional time.
Still, with growing anticipation, we await the starter’s call.
3 thoughts on “KIPCHOGE’S BOSTON DILEMMA”
Great post, as always, but I have a question: What are the chances Kipchoge provides his own pacer(s) to ensure a fast pace (presumably, the faster the pace, the better his chances of a win) and a chance at the course record?
I hope Eliud focusses on the win. That’s the cake (as you put it). I’m less concerned with his ability to tackle the course itself than his competitors. A lot has been made of his success on flat courses as being a sign he can’t be very good on hills. But really it is more likely he just hasn’t run that many hilly marathons. In Rio (not super hilly, but not fast and flat) he made short work of the course.
I think the Boston CR is probably out of reach, unless as you say, they get a 2011-esque set of circumstances. I suspect Eliud knows this too and won’t be prepared to risk sacrificing the win in chasing that mark.
We have always been impressed by your insights, your passion, and your ability to make the sport of marathon running come alive.
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