by Barbara Huebner
If experience is indeed the best teacher, Sharon Cherop is an “A” student.
In 2011, 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. The trio combined to produce the closest 1-2-3 women’s finish in Boston Marathon history, with just six seconds separating them. But for Cherop, those six seconds were an eternity.
It was an eternity that wouldn’t last long; Cherop had learned her lesson. If the race again came down to another sprint finish, the student would be prepared to pass the test.
“Last year I didn’t know the course,” said the 28-year-old Kenyan at a press conference days before this year’s race. “I didn’t know there were only 600 meters to go. Now I do."
“The second time” she prophesied, “is better than the first.”
In the closing stages of the 116th Boston Marathon, Cherop and Jemima Jelagat Sumgong rounded that same turn together, but this time Cherop knew exactly where she was. Running shoulder-to-shoulder with her friend and rival, Cherop surged ahead at the instant the duo hit the turn onto Boylston, then held off a last-ditch charge by Sumgong in the final straightaway to emerge the victor in 2:31:50 on one of the hottest days in race history. Her victory was worth $150,000.
On her heels, just two seconds back, Sumgong finished in 2:31:52, earning $75,000.
On the 40th anniversary of women’s official admittance into the Boston Marathon in 1972, this was the fifth consecutive year in which the women’s race of the Boston Marathon was decided by three seconds or less, and will go down tied for the second-closest 1-2 finish in Boston history. All of the five-closest finishes have been recorded in the past five years, with a total difference of 10 seconds between winner and runner-up.
Placing third was Georgina Rono (2:33:09), giving Kenyan women a sweep of the Boston Marathon podium for the first time.
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 New England spring rain but from the glaring sun. The temperature at the start of the race was 75.6 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.
“When we first heard the weather was going to be what it was going to be, you get all the calls from everyone wondering what you’re going to do,” said Piers. “But . . . it’s out of your control. There’s no sense in panicking about it because we’re all going to be doing the same thing and feeling the same way. I wore a watch, but I didn’t even hit it for every split. I thought, ‘I don’t have to worry about this stupid watch and looking at a split that’s not where it should be.’ ”
By the two-mile mark, the pack was already a minute-and-a-half behind the 2011 pace and turning down no opportunity to hydrate. Not only were they certain to grab their special fluid bottles; paper cups of water carefully stacked for the thirsty masses to follow were more than once sent tumbling and splashing as the leaders jockeyed to grab what they could on their dash past.
After hitting the halfway mark in 1:17:11 - about 6½ minutes slower than Smith went through last year before succumbing to injury - the pack of eight began to splinter as it made its way up the first long hill of the race around the 17-mile mark, over Route 128. The overpass is the longest uphill on the course, totally exposed to the sun, and here is where the heat boom began to fall on this hot and cloudless day. When it did, 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 in her quest 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 near Mile 18 in the middle of the Newton Hills, and water that was so coveted 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 one off. The runners were brought up short, dodging and braking, and Kilel appeared to collide with the water bearer. The defending champion briefly retook the lead, but never again looked the same and soon fell a step back. Grimacing slightly, she ran with the pack for another couple of miles but eventually faded. Reduced to a walk, she dropped out with less than a mile to go.
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.)
Here is where Cherop seized control of the race, at least mentally. As they hit the crest and prepared to sail down the hill past Boston College, she dramatically picked up the pace, emboldened by the demise of Dado.
“When the Ethiopian woman started to drop, I gained courage,” she said.
But she was more than emboldened: she was empowered. After their 2011 disappointment here, coach Gabriele Nicola decided that Cherop needed to work on her downhill running. So, for the first time, he shifted part of her training from Iten to Marakwet, where steep downhills emulating those between Hopkinton and Boylston Street would aid their cause.
"She learned how to save energy,” the Italian coach explained the day after her victory. “She learned how to roll down the hills. She won the race on the downhills.”
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 number-three 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 résumé. As the reigning IAAF World Championships bronze medalist, she came in with a personal best of 2:22:39, and a dramatic victory at the 2010 Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon, by one second in a sprint finish. The journeywoman Sumgong, meanwhile, brought two marathon victories (Castellon 2011 and Las Vegas 2006) and a slower personal best of 2:28:32, but had said coming into the race that a warm day would make her “very happy,” and she was looking strong.
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, and she had been receiving physiotherapy right up until the race. “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. She had been racing Sumgong since their junior days, so she felt confident that her 27-year-old countrywoman could not match her surge.
Indeed, at first the matter appeared to be settled. Sumgong felt otherwise, forcing her friend to glance often over her shoulder as she successfully fought off a late desperate charge.
“I was trying to catch my friend,” said Sumgong. “I didn’t, but I am still very happy.”
Cherop would hit the finish line a slim two seconds before Sumgong, then immediately turn to embrace her challenger before sinking to her knees, crossing herself and looking heavenward in thanks.
After the race, Cherop was asked if she thought that her victory would guarantee a spot on Kenya’s Olympic Marathon team. Already on a list of six on its “provisional team,” she demurred, saying that the choice was up to her nation’s athletic federation. Later that month, Kenya named the top three runners — Mary Keitany, Edna Kiplagat, and Priscah Jeptoo — from the Virgin London Marathon, held in ideal conditions six days after Boston.
History will decide the wisdom of the decision.