There’s no such thing as a sure thing. We all know that; but, here’s one for you: this year’s men’s race at Boston will be a thriller. OK, that’s an easy prediction to make. They’ve all been thrillers in recent years; but, there are elements to this one that ensure that viewers’ attention will be held - grippingly - from Hopkinton all the way to the line in downtown Boston.
Let’s start with the American Ryan Hall, he of the other-worldly talent and 2:06:17 PR (London, 2007). In 2009, Hall placed third in this race, returning 12 months later carrying the hopes and expectations of the nation. A curious race, in which he surged to the forefront from the gun, appeared to wilt in mid-race, then come charging back in the closing miles, brought him to the finish line in fourth position, a fine performance, though one that left some observers scratching their heads as to Hall’s potential.
This year, Hall comes to the line similarly enigmatic. He hasn’t run a marathon since Boston last year and has split with his former training group, opting instead to be self coached. At the New York City Half Marathon in March, he placed 21st in a time of 1:03:53, slower than he passed the half way mark in Boston last year. None of which augurs well for Boston this year; though, neither does it count him out. Far from it. Hall is a man who runs on passion and inspiration and who has the ability to trade footsteps with the finest in the world, as he has shown many times. Certainly, he will need to draw on all of that on Marathon Monday; but, it would be a considerable mistake to count him out.
Making the lead American’s life particularly complicated will be a phalanx of the world’s finest marathoners, the overwhelming majority of them hailing from Kenya and Ethiopia. With the exception of 2001, when Lee Bong Ju from Korea took the title, competitors from Kenya or Ethiopia have prevailed in Boston every year since 1991. (Seventeen of those winners have been Kenyan). Returning to our “no sure thing” theme, there still isn’t one; but, if you wanted to bet the farm, a strong contender would have to be a racer from the Rift Valley.
Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot may be the sentimental favorite. Everybody loves a winner, and Cheruiyot comes back to Boston to defend the title he won in stunning fashion in 2010. Taking advantage of Hall’s early pace-making, Cheruiyot charged through the second half of the course, reaching the finish line in a stunning 2:05:52 course record that trimmed a full 1:22 from the previous mark, set at 2:07:14 by Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot (no relation) in 2006. Is there a chink in this man’s armor? He placed sixth in Chicago last autumn, running over three and a half minutes slower than he did in Boston. What that signifies is impossible to divine; just bear in mind that Boston has a strong history of repeat winners.
The fastest man on paper in this year’s field is Geoffrey Mutai (KEN), who scorched the Rotterdam Marathon course in 2:04:55 last year. That said, Mutai didn’t win the race. His compatriot, Patrick Makau prevailed. Later in the year, Mutai went to Berlin, where he blistered a 2:05:10 clocking. Again he placed second, again to Makau. The latter isn’t in the Boston field. Which means what? It means that Cheruiyot - not to mention Hall - had better be ready to run even more forcefully than they did last year.
Let’s talk about smart money, for one moment. We’ve spoken of defending champion, Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot, who is back and hungry, but whose last marathon (Chicago) was a sixth place finish. We’ve spoken of Ryan Hall, who has shown indifferent recent form. We’ve spoken of Geoffrey Mutai, who is fast, but vulnerable. The man who may trump all of those aces is Gebre Gebremariam, the Ethiopian who made his debut in New York last October, winning that race in a time of 2:08:14 and making it look downright comfortable. In contrast to Hall, Gebremariam made his outing in the recent NYC Half Marathon hugely meaningful, placing second to Great Britain’s Mo Farah by just two seconds in a blistering 60:25. Gebremariam can also boast of a serious off-road pedigree, having taken the World Cross Country title in 2009 and an Olympic fourth place finish over 10,000m in 2004. On the subject of smart money, therefore - if you are and if you’ve got some, the Ethiopian may be the man on whom to place it. It should be noted that Boston’s total prize purse is a whopping $806,000 with $150,000 going to the men’s champion. This purse is funded as part of John Hancock Financial’s principal sponsorship of the race. John Hancock Financial also recruits and fields the incredibly-talented and deep field as part of its sponsorship, among its extensive support.
If it’s dark horses that pique your interest, Alistair Cragg may be the man of greatest interest to you. The two time Irish Olympian has never run a marathon before; but, what he has done is run a debut half marathon in New York in 2009 in 1:01:58, a time he improved to 1:00:49 in the same race this year. That is indicative of some very fine form, although - as noted - Boston is a course that is most kind to those that it already knows.
All of which is simply to say that there are some serious racers who will be toe-ing the line in Hopkinton on Monday. To the above you can add Evans Cheruiyot (KEN), the 2008 Chicago winner who is returning from injury; Bekana Daba (ETH), the winner in Houston in January; Tadese Tola (ETH), just 23 years old and the winner in Paris last year; Robert Kipchumba (KEN), winner of the Xiamen International Marathon in January; Moses Kigen Kipkosgei (KEN), eighth in Boston last year and third in New York; 2:06 performer Gilbert Yegon (KEN); and, debutant Moses Mosop. The field is as deep as - if not deeper than - any assembled in Boston, ever. To make a prediction would be foolhardy. Instead, let’s just wait until Monday, then sit back and watch the fireworks. It is Patriots’ Day, after all.
-- by James O’Brien. James O’Brien has been writing about the sport of running since 1979, and has reported on the Boston Marathon since 1992. He is the current Director of Communications for the New York Athletic Club.