By James O'Brien
In 2010, Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot set a Boston course record of 2:05:52. Had Cheruiyot run that time in this year's race, he would have placed fifth. That is not to minimize the caliber of the defending champion's year-old record; on the contrary, it more clearly illustrates the stunning accomplishment of Geoffrey Mutai in taking the 2011 laurel wreath in a scarcely believable time of 2:03:02. One may be confident in stating that this is a mark that will remain unapproached for many years. Then again, the evidence of the 115th Boston Marathon is that there may be plenty more still to come.
The other-worldly quality of this year's race was in evidence from the moment the gun fired. Some even felt portents of what was going to unfold earlier than that. "I knew this was going to be a special day as soon as I got out of bed," stated Ryan Hall.
There had been much talk, in the days in advance of the race, of the tailwind that was being anticipated. The elite runners would fly. Be that as it may, there have been tailwinds in Boston before, but there has never been a day like today. In some ways it bordered on the scarcely believable. A winning time of 2:03:02 - the fastest marathon ever run, by 58 seconds - was an epoch shattering performance of Usain Bolt-ian proportions. The free-form tactics of Ryan Hall were absorbing, sometimes bewildering, but ultimately fantastically successful. Four finishers under the 12 months old course record, six under 2:07 and 10 under 2:09 was indicative of a speed in depth that has never before been seen on the fabled Boston course. It's too easy to dismiss the times as due solely to the aiding wind. There are still 26.2 miles to cover, still the Newton Hills to confront and still a hoard of the most intimidating competitors in the world to handle. Aiding wind or not, there are ways innumerable that things can go wrong. That they didn't is testimony to the acuity of the field and most of all to the inspired racing of the 29 year-old Mutai.
Though much of the pre-event conjecture centered on three men - the defending champion, Cheruiyot; the New York winner, Gebregziabher Gebremariam; and the enigmatic Hall, who had placed a lowly 21st in the New York City Half Marathon in March - Mutai was always distinctly there, always a force of enormous potential, always the name posited as the man who "could." In reality, of all those on the Hopkinton starting line, Mutai was the most familiar with running fast. In Rotterdam last April, he scorched to a 2:04:55 second placed finish, then the equal seventh fastest in history. In Berlin in September, he crossed the finish line in a superb 2:05:10, again taking second, though a time that he stated was slowed by the persistent rain. Thus, on paper, Mutai was over one minute faster than anybody else in the field.
The gun, of course, is the great equalizer. Once that retorts, it's just a pack of talented athletes, their commitment and the hard road. The first one to make a statement was - you guessed - Hall, the man whose tactics in 2010 had bewildered spectators, his superb fourth place finish notwithstanding. But, Hall runs to his own beat. "I feel comfortable in the lead," he stated. "I felt really comfortable at that pace, and I like to arrive ahead of schedule."
From the opening footsteps, the lithe American indicated that as precisely his objective. He loped through the first mile in 4:38, five miles in 23:18 and 10 in 47:03. For all but a handful of the steps, he held the pole position, sometimes drifting back to grab water, but always migrating back to the forefront and assuming the pace-maker's role once again. Behind him amassed all of the race's favorites - Cheruiyot, Gebremariam, Mutai, Evans Cheruiyot, the debutant Moses Mosop - all happy to enjoy the services of the de facto pacemaker. All but unnoticed - other than by the protagonists - was the burgeoning pace.
That 10 mile split indicated a blistering finishing time somewhere around 2:02:40. Little more than three miles later, at the half way point, and with Hall still in command, the split of 61:56 indicated a finishing time of 2:03:52. Curiously, that time was almost two minutes faster than Hall had run in the NYC Half Marathon just a handful of weeks previously. Obviously, those numbers were flattering to deceive and reality would come to bear in the second half of the race. Obviously.
But Hall hammered on, frequently displaying the ebullience that had dismayed and bewildered so many in 2010. He low-fived the girls outside Wellesley College; he held his hand to his ear, exhorting them to cheer still louder; he fist-pumped as the crowds outside the American Legion Hall screamed their encouragement. He looked supreme, no question about that; but, one had to question the energy he was expending, the focus he was seemingly lacking.
At 15 miles (1:10:55), the group held tight - Mutai, Bekana Daba (ETH), Robert Chepchumba (KEN), Mosop, Gebremariam, Philip Kimutai Sanga (KEN), Cheruiyot, Hall near the back - and, approaching the Newton Hills, there was no sign of the pace relenting. At 18 miles (1:25:15), Hall fronted the pack one more time, though this was a prelude to the move that was about to set this race blazing. With 19 miles fast approaching, Mutai injected the first move to truly do some damage. The group that had been congealed for so long fell asunder and the race for the line was on.
Mosop was the only one to offer a spirited response. Gebremariam tried, but could never really get back on terms. By 20 miles (1:34:05 - a projected finish somewhere in the 2:03s), it was Mutai leading, Mosop a couple of steps down and fighting, Gebremariam several more behind and fading, the rest wondering what the heck was going on. Hall was to proffer later, "I couldn't believe it. I was running 2:04 pace and I couldn't even see the leaders."
The closing miles were a duel that had to be seen to be believed. Mutai, the experienced speedster, controlled the mind-blowing pace; Mosop, the neophyte, hung on, either through naivety or strength of will - probably both. "I was expecting 2:07, 2:08," he said later.
At 25 miles, the split was 1:57:30. With one mile to go, it was 1:58:31, and it was at that stage that the reality of what these athletes were doing truly resonated. A five minute dawdle through the final mile would still improve the fastest marathon ever run (Haile Gebreselassie's 2:03:59) by 28 seconds. Dawdling was not something they were doing.
Swinging onto Boylston Street for the long home straight, it became a sprinter's race - and this after 26 miles at mind-blowing speed. With 200m remaining, though, it became evident that Mutai was the man with the wheels. He hurtled across the line with 2:03:02 showing on the clock, a time that was scarcely believable. Whatever about the tailwind, whatever about the point to point course, this was a time that brought marathoning to a new, and barely conceivable, era. A 2:02 marathon is around the corner. Talk has already started of sub-2:00:00.
In second place, Mosop crossed the line in 2:03:06, the fastest first marathon of all time. The previous debutant's best stood to Evans Rutto at 2:05:50 from Chicago in 2003. In third, Gebremariam improved his PR to 2:04:53 (from 2:08:14). In fourth, Hall improved the best ever time by an American to 2:04:58. Abreham Cherkos (ETH) closed powerfully to take fifth in 2:06:13, also a PR. The first finisher not to improve his best was the defending champ Cheruiyot, who placed sixth in 2:06:43.
"I was not coming to Boston to break the world record," stated Mutai, who claimed $150,000 for his win, plus $50,000, plus $25,000 for the course record. "It was not in my mind, but it came. The wind was never much. Hall helped us a lot. He pushed it and he pushed it, all the time."
For his part, Hall was elated. "Having run a bunch of marathons, I've learned to trust myself," he asserted. "I really wanted to be in the race coming to Newton. I was excited to be the in the lead and I was really excited about my splits. I knew that we were in a special day."
This marked a stunning return to form for the American, who had endured an un-diagnosed parasite near the end of 2010, and attributed his NYC Half Marathon slump to having come down from altitude too close to the event. "For some reason, I have breakthroughs in races where everybody else breaks through as well," he continued. "One of these days, I'll break through when everybody else is having an off day."
In the masters' competition, the win went to 42 year old Migidio Bourifa from Italy, who crossed the line in 2:13:45, taking the $10,000 first prize. Second and third were Franklin Tenorio from Boulder, CO (2:17:56) and Boudalia Said from Italy (2:18:31), respectively.