In Tom Derderian’s magisterial book, the Boston Marathon: The History of the World’s Premier Running Event, he describes the 1990 Boston Marathon thusly.

/When 1988 Olympic marathon champion Gelindo Bordin’s coach, Luciano Gigliotti, saw the African runners’ tactics in Boston, he said that they were “funny guys, crazy guys”. It was just not possible to run like that. He called the pace “ludicrous”./

The 1990 Boston Marathon is worth revisiting in the wake of the 2023 race, as both were incredibly quick out of the blocks – I would say 2011, too, but that was the real outlier year, weather-wise, with its 15-20 mph tailwind.

1990 was year five of the John Hancock Financial Services sponsorship. Any early shakedown issues had long since been settled. All systems by now were running at flank speed.

The elite invited field that year was as good as the event had ever seen as Hancock’s involvement had reordered the sport. At the gun, six athletes from East Africa tumbled out of Hopkinton like guppies poured from a goldfish bowl.

Led by 1988 champion Ibrahim Hussein of Kenya – the first African to win at Boston – the six-pack dropped mile one in 4:26, ten seconds faster than we saw on Monday. Miles two and three evaporated at 4:32 and 4:37. They hit 5K, in 14:04, 13 seconds ahead of Monday’s split in the 127th running! And that’s before super-shoes!

Behind ran three recent Boston champions: Greg Meyer (1983), Geoff Smith (1984 & `85), and Rob de Castella (1986) the course record holder at 2:07:51. Between was the aforementioned Olympic champion Gelindo Bordin of Italy.

Going back to the turn of the 20th century, no Olympic men’s marathon champion had ever won in Boston, a jinx Bordin was determined to break. Before the race, Gelindo asked John Hancock elite athlete recruiter, Pat Lynch, if it would be okay for him to run up front with the leaders, because usually he employed more temperate tactics, coming from behind. But in 1990, he wanted to take a gamble and have a go – not unlike how Utah’s Connor Mantz ran this year‘s race on Monday.

But despite his plan to join the fray, on a sunny spring day, Bordin quickly demurred, once the Africans  attacked the course like it was a 10K rather than a marathon. Instead, Bordin ran to his own rhythm, essentially running the entire race by himself.

Two years before, in the race preceding his Olympic victory in Seoul, Gelindo finished fourth in Boston behind Hussein and Ikangaa, in 2:09:27, the same time Bill Rodgers posted in his 1979 course record, American record, and personal record third of four Boston wins.

Tanzania’s Juma Ikangaa came into the 1990 race having finished second two years running, hungry. First, and famously, taking second to Hussein in their sprint down Boylston Street, then second again to Ethiopia’s Abebe Mekonnen in 1989.

Countryman Simon Robert Naali, the Honolulu Marathon champion, joined Juma, as there was a strong correlation between success in Honolulu and success in Boston, a connection first forged by Ibrahim Hussein who had won three times on Oahu before his wins in New York and Boston. Honolulu also featured an infamous climb late in the race over the Diamond Head crater.

Filling out the lead pack were two Ethiopians: Zeleke Metafaria, the 1987 World Cup Marathon champion, and Tesfaye Tafa, who came in off a course record at the hill-strewn San Blas Half Marathon in Puerto Rico in February. Kenyans Hussein and 1988 Olympic 10,000m bronze medalist Kipkemboi Kimeli, made this the most glittering lead pack the race had ever seen.

Five miles passed in 23:05 – gulp! – 2:01-flat marathon pace. Bordin flew through the half all alone 45 seconds behind the Africans, who split the distance at 1:02:01, a checkpoint record. Monday’s half passed in 1:02:19. Soon thereafter, the carnage began.

At 25K, Naali became the first casualty. Bordin buzzed by without thought. Up Comm Ave through the three Newton Hills, he climbed passed both Ethiopians before two Kenyans were next in his rearview mirror.

Finally, atop Heartbreak Hill, the bearded Italian whose image could just as easily be found on an ancient urn, came up hard on race leader Juma Ikangaa.

By now,  the tiny Tanzanian’s calf muscles were in revolt, cramping, making it impossible for him to respond to Bordin’s challenge. Still, Juma would hold on to finish second for the third straight year, joining the BAA’s own Patti Dillon (1979-1981) in that sister—kissing category.

Gelindo Bordin Boston 1990

Running unopposed the rest of the way, Bordin’s 1990 win (2:08:19) also ended the Olympic jinx as he became the first male Olympic marathon champion in eight tries to win at the Boston. Joan Benoit Samuelson had previously done so for women, adding the inaugural women’s Olympic Marathon gold medal in LA 1984 to her Boston victories in 1979 and 1983.

Tuesday, two-time Olympic champion Eliud Kipchoge finally sat down before the media to explain what happened in Monday’s 127th race, during which he led past halfway before falling off in mile 19 (surprisingly, he was the first of the pack to get gapped) and finishing sixth some three and half minutes behind back-to-back champion Evans Chebet.

Eliud Kipchoge leads through Framingham (10K) at the 127th Boston Marathon, Monday, April 17, 2023 (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

In his comments, Eliud refuted any charge that he had either prepared or raced incorrectly. Said further that neither the rain, nor the hilly course, nor the quick early pace into a headwind on the downhills was a factor. Instead, it was just “not my day”.

But something went wrong that had never gone wrong before! Even in London 2020, when he finished eighth, it was an inner ear issue brought on by the rainy conditions that threw off his equilibrium. It was not a leg problem, like we saw him suffer with on Monday in Boston, on the same stretch of hills, BTW, where so many previous frontrunners had met their comeuppance. 

Accept it or not, there’s 126 years of history that informs us that going out hard on the long early downhill miles of Boston does not pay dividends in the Back Bay, especially in chilly, damp conditions into a headwind.

The hill in Boston with the brand name may be Heartbreak Hill at 21 miles, but the hills that do the damage are downhills in the first 10K and then at 25K when the course plummets from Wellesley into Newton lower Falls. It’s the steepest descent on the course and is immediately followed by a 700-meter climb over the Route 128 overpass.

Among all 26.2 miles of the Boston course, only 1.6 miles are flat, according LIDAR mapping by retired geography professor Sean Hartnett of Wisconsin.

After the uphill over Rte. 128, there’s another half-mile stretch downhill passing Newton-Wellesley Hospital before the right-hand turn on Commonwealth Avenue at Newton’s Firestation #2, which is where the series of three more Hills capped by Heartbreak Hill begin. It’s taxing enough just to write about, much less race!

As Coach Bill Squires used to tell his charges in the Greater Boston Track Club, “It isn’t the uphills in Boston that get to you, it is the downhills.” That knowledge is as old as the race itself. One can either heed it or not, but it suggests the need to prepare specifically for the pounding that those hills will exact. Either that, or go easy for the first 10K so those down hills can’t do their damage. Is it happenstance alone that the three podium placers all had experience in Boston, including two wins and a fourth place?

We did not see Eliud Kipchoge come to Boston several months before the race, like so many past invited stars had, to study and run over parts of the course. Nor did his coach, Patrick Sang, fly in to scout the route.

Kipchoge said he trained up and down at home like he always does. But did he train specifically on downhill stretches of paved roads or just on red clay ones? It matters.

In 1963, Rome Olympic Marathon champion Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia came to Boston, creating the same stir as Kipchoge did this year. Bikila and future Mexico City Olympic champion Mamo Wolde established early checkpoint records through Wellesley. Then, as the course rose over the Rte. 128 overpass, a chilled Atlantic wind spinning off the coast met them head on.

Soon, Wolde fell away. Then on the Comm. Ave. hills, the damp headwinds caused Bikila’s own once supple muscles to seize. The two great champions finished fifth and 12th and never returned to Boston to try again. 

Same in 1983, when Grete Waitz of Norway set world record splits all the way onto Beacon Street before the effects of the battering downhills ripped up her quads. She took a DNF at the Coolidge Corner just past 24 miles, despite urgings from the boisterous crowd to keep going. She, too, never returned to the Hub to try again. 

Oh, and wasn’t Monday’s  action why we like unpaced racing on a challenging course more than we do time-trialing on a flat layout? 

What paced races on flat courses do, primarily, is eliminate as many variables as possible: no hills, no racing, no grabbing your own bottles, having a coach on a sidecar or bicycle; they make everything as squeaky clean as possible.

While none of those elements makes a difference on its own, when you stack them up one atop the other, they add up to something.

Who knows whether Eliud Kipchoge will ever make a return trip to Boston? Yesterday, he said he wants to. Who knows, there may be some huge secret bonus involved in winning all six Abbott World Marathon Majors. You would think a third Olympic Marathon gold medal would have greater historic value. But, as my father always told me, “we must all live our own lives.”

One and done would be a little unsatisfying, true. But if that’s to be the case, the name Kipchoge will just get added to the infamous list of great past running champions who came a cropper on the leg-busting hills of the world’s premier running event.



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