Story by James O'Brien
You could say that the men’s race at the 117th Boston Marathon evolved to be a curious enterprise; but, that’s probably the case with most marathons. Even so, there’s no denying that there were strange goings on out on the route from Hopkinton to Boston.
First of all, it was a glorious day to run - temperatures in the 50s with minimal winds - but the lead men opted to meander through the opening miles seconds slower than five minutes per mile. At mile one, the clock read 5:09 and saw last year’s fourth place finisher, Jason Hartmann from Colorado, in the lead with Canada’s Robin Watson alongside him and Fernando Cabada, also from Colorado, a single stride in arrears.
Last year’s winner, Wesley Korir, who was embedded in the chasing pack of 20 or more runners, offered some insight. “It was quite tactical,” he explained. “It was Ethiopia versus Kenya. A day like today is when you need a guy like Ryan Hall, because Ryan likes to go out hard and push the pace. When you see more than five Ethiopians in a race, you have to be very careful. They run tactically, as a team.”
Even so, it was curious to see Hartmann, Watson and Cabada forge ahead, leaving a field loaded with 2:04-2:05 performers the best part of 20 seconds in their wake. At three miles, a split of 15:06 for the leaders was followed by 15:22 for the pack - a 16 second differential. At 5K, those numbers were 15:35 and 15:56 (19 second differential), with four miles covered in 19:59 and 20:16 (17 seconds). The leaders were far from flying; the chasing pack was far from chasing.
We all knew that that state of affairs could not continue indefinitely. Marathons are like that; how they begin is never how they end. By five miles, everything had indeed changed. A split of 25:04 was certainly not setting the world on fire, but it did capture a lot of attention as Hartmann and his wing men found themselves surrounded by a phalanx of the foremost contenders, each one of whom was either Kenyan or Ethiopian. By name, the gang was Markos Geneti (ETH), Gebre Gebremariam (ETH), Levy Matebo (KEN), Deriba Merga (ETH), Dickson Chumba (KEN), Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot (KEN), Micah Kogo (KEN), Raji Assefa (ETH) and defending champion Wesley Korir (KEN), plus Hartmann, Watson and Cabada. Quickly, the three early leaders were dropped, leaving a pack of nine and a two-nation battle.
By and large, that was the way things stayed for the next handful of miles. 10K was passed in 30:53 and 10 miles in 49:21, a brisk pace, but nothing that these guys couldn’t handle. By contrast, in the record-setting year of 2011, the leaders had reached this point in 47:03. The splits bounced around - some as fast as 4:43 (six to seven miles), some as slow as 5:07 (11 to 12); but there was little drama. That was still to come.
Continuing the theme of the peculiar, it was shortly after the 12 mile mark that the previously jettisoned trio of Hartmann, Watson and Cabada re-joined the lead pack. Certainly, this was abetted by a waning pace; but, that never happens, especially not at Boston. Once the impetuous early front-runners are gone, that’s it, they’re never to be seen again. Not so this time. Not only did the early leaders re-join the front-runners, momentarily they became the mid-race leaders. Hartmann and Watson drifted towards the front of the field, steering the pack through the "Scream Tunnel" at Wellesley College (deafening) and on towards the half way mark, which they lumbered through in 1:04:54. Chumba and Korir took a turn at the front shortly thereafter, and that’s pretty much how they moved on down the road.
At 15 miles (1:14:29), Watson - a 2:13 performer - held the pole, having opened an inexplicable handful of meters over the pack of 11 behind him. It wasn’t significant; he quickly came back to the fold; but, all 12 guys knew that something truly significant was pretty much assured within the next couple of miles. That’s because the Newton Hills were drawing near; and, as every Bostonian knows - every marathoner knows - the Newton Hills are where hearts get broken.
Dickson Chumba was the first to decide that it was time to make a run for glory. A 2:05:46 performer from the Eindhoven Marathon last year, Chumba DNF’d in both the 2011 Chicago Marathon and Boston in 2012. Time to make amends. He attacked the first of the hills like he truly meant it. What had been a group of 11 through the first inclines quickly dissolved to a pack of five - Chumba, Gebremariam, Desisa, Kogo and Matebo - with Merga, Assefa and defending champ Korir all out the back door. Hartmann was barely in sight. A split of 4:45 between miles 18 and 19 offered ample explanation of how the damage was inflicted; it also begged the question of who, among the remaining leaders, had weathered the storm strongest.
As the leading quintet stormed off the top of the famed Heartbreak Hill, another in the series of this year’s curiosities began to make itself apparent. Wesley Korir had been dropped - meaning seriously out of contention sayonara dropped; but, as the leaders passed 22 miles in 1:49:55, the defending champ was coming on like he had every intention of taking the laurel wreath one more time. At that marker, he was seven seconds down; half a mile later, he had reduced that deficit to zero. With 23 miles passing in 1:55:02, he decided that it was time to see who had what. With Chumba, Kogo, Matebo, Gebremariam and Desisa all intent on the waiting game, Korir opted to wait no longer, injecting a surge that immediately fractured the leading group, that spurred Desisa, Kogo and Gebremariam to an immediate response and that - curiosity continuing - confined Korir himself to a spot off of the podium. He, ultimately, placed a still delighted fifth (2:12:30), stating, “When I caught up with them, I had the momentum. I had to take the chance. I think I’m the happiest man alive right now.”
At the front end, it was still all to run for. At 24 miles (1:59:38), Kogo held a whisper of a lead over Gebremariam and Desisa. The leader had never run a marathon before; Desisa had already run one in 2013 (albeit a winning 2:04:45 in Dubai in January). So, the smart money was inclining towards Gebremariam, a man with blistering track speed plus a World Cross Country title and a New York City Marathon victory to his name. Not to be forgotten were his two previous Boston outings (read: course experience), a third in 2011 and 14th in the heat of 2012. Yep, Gebremariam had to be the way to go.
That kind of rationale was irrelevant to Kogo and Desisa. As they hammered onward, the only certainty was that the win was still there to be claimed. That was how it remained until the leading trio made the right turn onto Hereford Street and the quick left turn onto Boylston Street, the sweeping arch of the finish line presenting itself right before them. That was all the impetus that Desisa needed. Gebremariam tried to make a break, but Desisa was more than ready. He accelerated into an overdrive that his combatants simply could not match. One move and it was done, in devastating style. At the line, the time of 2:10:22 was reflective of the early cautionary tactics; but, it also revealed a dominating seven second margin over the second placed Kogo and eight over Gebremariam in third. Respectively, they claimed $150,000, $75,000 and $40,000.
In fourth place, Jason Hartmann charged through, completing the race of his life in a time of 2:12:12 and replicating his placing of 12 months previously. On that occasion, the heat caused all kinds of aberrations; this time around, in these conditions, it simply proved that Hartmann - despite a blister that troubled him from mile six - has established his position among road racing’s finest.
Desisa, thrilled at his victory, offered a simple explanation of how it happened. “I saw the finish line and I sprinted,” he stated.
What else do you need to know? That’s how you win the world’s most prestigious annual marathon.