Coming into the 1996 Boston Marathon, history draped the centennial of the grand race like the bunting atop the finish line structure. That Patriot’s Day, a record 36,748 starters boarded 800 yellow school busses for the ride out to Hopkinton, Mass., where BAA officials accommodated the historic throng at the local high school football field as anyone who wanted to enter could, rather than just the Boston qualifiers.

The year before, Kenyan star Cosmas Ndeti joined Clarence DeMar (1922-1924) and Bill Rodgers (1978-1980) as the only men to win Boston three straight years. Then, throughout race week, the Machakos, Kenya native boldly predicted not just a fourth consecutive victory, but openly stated he wanted to break the marathon world record too – at the time, 2:06:50, set in Rotterdam 1988 by Ethiopia’s Belayneh Densimo.

Ndeti’s pronouncement was very un-Kenyan like. Not just because Kenyan runners are famously closed-mouthed in talking about their training and goals, but also because there had only been one men’s world record ever at Boston—Korean Yun Bok Suh in 1947. Thus, the odds of pulling off such a grand slam were long, irrespective of conditions and competition.  

Still, the colorful evangelical Christian who had been “born again” in 1993, five months before his first Boston win, wasn’t talking absolutely sideways. Cosmas held the course record at 2:07:15 from his second win in 1994 when zephyr-like tailwinds helped propel him and women’s champion Uta Pippig (2:21:45) to new course standards, while Switzerland’s Heinz Frei (1:21:23) and Illinois’ Jean Driscoll (1:34:22) did them one better by establishing new push-rim wheelchair world records.

Then, 1996 Marathon Monday dawned sunny and cool. Excellent. But a moderate sea breeze chilled the course, too, meaning a headwind would meet the runners throughout their easterly journey from Hopkinton to Boston’s Back Bay. Odds against a record run now rose beyond even the most astute bookmaker’s handicapping. Surely Cosmas would reconsider his approach.

Nope. The ebullient 36th child of a wealthy Kamba farmer defied the conditions and dashed to the front at the starter’s command.

Mile one fell in 4:36. Six miles clocked in at 28:20 in Framingham with white-clad Ndeti still undeterred, towing the large pack nearly a full minute under course record pace. His training had been perfect since Christmas around Machakos, and he was determined to put it to full use in Boston. 

He sailed through halfway in 1:03:22, almost two minutes faster than the halfway split in his inaugural victory year 1993. No, it was too fast. He’s doing too much leading into the wind, trying for something special on a day built for racing the field, not grasping for records. 

“He thought he was God,” quipped 1986 champion and former course record holder (2:07:51), Rob de Castella of Australia in the aftermath.

In Ndeti’s slipstream sat, among many others, countryman Moses Tanui, the previous year’s runner up and former world champion at 10,000 meters. Ezequiel Bitok, too, a man who made his mark in cross-country, but whose performance in Boston would earn him a spot of the 1996 Kenyan Olympic Marathon team in Atlanta.

As they entered Kenmore Square, with just one mile remaining, Tanui and Bitok had already dispatched Ndeti, who had wasted all his reserves bucking the headwind. He watched helplessly as Tanui pulled away to victory (2:09:16), relegating the defending champion to third place behind Bitok’s 2:09:26. Still, Cosmas finished just 35 seconds behind Moses.

In the crosstalk gabfest circling the Copley Plaza Hotel lobby afterwards, everyone just shook their heads thinking, if only he would have run the same negative-split strategy (a faster second half than first) that had produced his previous three wins. Ndeti had been the first to accomplish that feat in Boston during his first victory in 1993, when a second-half 1:04:21 followed a 1:05:12 into Wellesley.

But the marathon gods weren’t with him in `96. It wasn’t their time for a record. They turned the easterlies on him, and he took their brunt. Ballsy run, yes. But unwise in the end, because four-peat would have sounded a lot better than three-peat (though that sounds pretty sweet, too).

Boston’s Old South Church in Copley Square

This year, with history once again hanging in the salty air, Eliud Kipchoge has, like Ndeti before him, arrived in the Hub as the prohibitive favorite, while setting his sights on ever-loftier goals, victory in all six Abbott World Marathon Majors and a historic third Olympic gold medal over the distance come Paris 2024. Early on, he even ventured into Ndeti territory by speaking of going for the Boston record, 2:03:02, from Geoffrey Mutai in 2011 on another perfect tailwind day.

With so much history along the route, the chance to witness more is always intriguing. Eliud Kipchoge is the best marathon runner this event, or any marathon, has ever seen, which guarantees nothing.

He is also a contemplative man and an astute racer; two Olympic gold medals attest to that. One can only assume he won’t let his hopes and heart overrule his better judgement now that forecasters have predicted another easterly headwind. After all, records come and go; victories last forever.


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