by Barbara Huebner
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If experience is indeed the best teacher, Sharon Cherop is an “A” student.
Last year, when Desiree Davila and Caroline Kilel slung themselves around the corner onto Hereford Street toward the homestretch of the 115th Boston Marathon, Cherop got caught flat-footed because she didn’t realize how close they all were to the finish. Although the trio combined to produce the closest 1-2-3 women’s finish in Boston Marathon history—six seconds—they were a long six seconds for Cherop.
A year long, as it turned it. At a pre-race press conference, the 28-year-old Kenyan made it clear that she had learned her lesson.
“Last year I didn’t know the course,” she said. “I didn’t know there were only 600 meters to go. Now I do. The second time is better than the first.”
On Monday, at the 116th Boston Marathon, Cherop and her good friend Jemima Jelagat Sumgong rounded that same turn together, but this time Cherop knew exactly where she was. Holding off a last-ditch dramatic surge by Sumgong on Boylston Street, Cherop this time would emerge the victor, in 2:31:50. On her heels, Sumgong finished in 2:31:52, just two seconds back.
It was the fifth consecutive year in which the women’s race of the Boston Marathon was decided by three seconds or less.
Placing third was Georgina Rono (2:33:09), giving Kenya a sweep of the podium for the first time.
Winning the master’s division was Svetlana Pretot of France, in 2:40:50. Top American as well as master’s runner-up was Sheri Piers of Falmouth, ME, in 2:41:55. Two-time Boston Marathon winner Joan Samuelson, running with her daughter, Abigail, finished in 3:28:08.
For most of the women, it was a long, hot morning of attrition, a day when spectators all along the course huddled under umbrellas not from the rain but from the glaring sun. The temperature at the start of the race was 77.6 degrees, and with everyone focused on a conservative pace the pack went through the first mile in 6:15—56 seconds slower than last year, when the conditions were ideal and New Zealand’s Kim Smith took it out from the gun.
By the two-mile mark, the pack was already a minute and a half behind the 2011 pace and turning down no opportunity to grab water. Not only were they certain to grab their special fluid bottles, but paper cups of water carefully stacked for the thirsty masses to follow were more than once sent tumbling as the leaders grabbed what they could on the way.
After hitting the halfway mark in 1:17:11—about 6 ½ minutes slower than Smith went through last year before succumbing to injury—the pack began to splinter going up the first long hill of the race, over Route 128 around the 17-mile mark. And when the heat boom fell, it fell fast and hard. One minute Caroline Rotich looked fine, the next she was gone, and the climb had hardly begun. Next went Diana Sigei, who twice veered to the other side of the road for water before giving up the fight. Genet Getanah would soon follow. They’d already lost Agnes Kiprop and 2006 Boston Marathon winner Rita Jeptoo.
The pack was down to five when near Mile 18 in the middle of the Newton Hills, water suddenly became the enemy. As the lead pack—Kilel, Cherop, Rono, Sumgong and 2011 ING New York City Marathon champion Firehiwot Dado—scrambled toward a table of towering cups, a volunteer trying to be helpful stepped into the pack to hand off a cup. The runners were brought up short, dodging and stopping suddenly to avoid collisions. Although no one fell, Kilel never again looked the same. Grimacing, she with the pack for another couple of miles, but soon faded back. Eventually reduced to a walk, she dropped out after 40K.
Now they were four, but not for long. Heartbreak Hill spelled the end of Dado, who abruptly vanished from the pack but would hang on to finish fourth. (By the end of the race, five of the top 13 professional women would drop out). Cherop put the hammer down as they hit the crest, emboldened by both the extra downhill training she had done based on her 2011 experience here and by the demise of Dado.
“When the Ethiopian woman started to drop, I gained courage,” she said.
Rono would not last much longer, slipping back by mile 23 and taking a long look over her shoulder to see how secure she was in the #3 spot. Seeing nothing but empty road, she eased up and let Sumgong and Cherop run away from her. A clock in Coolidge Corner flashed the temperature: 82 degrees.
Of the two, now running shoulder to shoulder, Cherop had the better resume. The reigning IAAF World Championships bronze medalist, Cherop came in with a personal best of 2:22:39, and won the 2010 Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon by one second in a sprint finish. The journeywoman Sumgong, meanwhile, had a personal best of 2:28:32, but was looking strong despite having never run a hot-weather marathon.
Now came the question of the day: Would Cherop’s knee hold up? Two weeks before the race, a problem had developed with her right knee. “If my knee allows me, I will run better than last year,” she had predicted.
After the race, she explained: “It was not yet 100 percent; that’s why I gained more advantage when the race started slower.”
As the two turned onto Boylston, still side by side, Cherop took off. The matter looked to be settled. Sumgong felt otherwise, forcing her friend to fight off her late desperate surge. Cherop would prevail, by two slim seconds.