by James O’Brien
The story of the day was the heat. How high would it go? How severe would the consequences be? The organizing B.A.A. enacted every contingency plan possible, including deferred entry for those who had picked up their numbers and then thought better of it; but the increasing mercury still weighed heavily on most people’s minds — not least among those hoping to claim a slice of the $806,000 in prize money that was at stake.
The high temperatures brought a lot of uncertainty to the 2012 race, but it also brought one indisputable fact: that the course record of 2:03:02, the fastest time in history, set by Geoffrey Mutai in 2011, would be safe. There were some who recalled the scarcely conceivable 2:06:32 victory by the late Sammy Wanjiru in stifling heat at the Beijing Olympic Games, thereby contending that a fast Boston time was still feasible. There’s a world of difference between 2:06 and 2:03, however, and the events of Patriots' Day affirmed that caution was always going to be the wisest tactic.
At the 10 a.m. starting time in Hopkinton, the temperature was 79.2 degrees, a number that would only increase as the miles ticked by (by halfway, it was 82; by the men’s finish, it was almost 85). Not surprisingly, the early miles were a dawdle, with the prime contenders showing no concern at all when Glenn Randall from Mesa, Colorado, bolted into the lead, cruising through the first mile in 4:51 and the opening 5K in 15:05, a whole world removed from the opening 14:32 of 12 months previous.
Randall has an interesting pedigree, being a top-class cross-country skier with hopes of making the US team for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. To preface that accomplishment by taking the Boston Marathon crown, however, was never in the cards. Randall sauntered through four miles in 19:25 with a lead of 22 seconds on a pack that included the defending champion, Mutai (KEN), last year’s third-place finisher Gebregziabher Gebremariam (ETH), Fukuoka runner-up Levy Matebo (KEN), Amsterdam and Rotterdam winner Wilson Chebet (KEN), plus Laban Korir (KEN), Wesley Korir (KEN), Mathew Kisorio (KEN), and a handful of others, including Nick Arciniaga (AZ), Jason Hartmann (CO), and Michel Butter from Holland. But it didn’t take long for the proper order to be restored.
By 10K (31:02), Randall, a 2:20 performer, was gone, having been swallowed up by the group and consigned to an ultimate 54th-place finish in 2:37:13. Even this development, however, was not overly significant. There was no dramatic increase in pace, and everybody who was supposed to be there was rolling along in the 15-or-so-man group. The most significant fact of all, to this point, was that no single mile for the lead pack had been faster than 5:00 — a 2:11 pace. And that’s the way it stayed until after mile 14. At halfway, the clock read 1:06:11. A year ago, the leaders had hit that mark at 1:01:58.
The first move of note came close to the 14.5-mile mark when Kisorio, the eighth-place finisher in New York last November, injected a surge that instantaneously stretched the lead pack of 16 and pruned it to a pack of six. But this was not a deciding blow; it was more of a feeler, a probing move to see who had what and whether they could use it. As quickly as they had given ground, all the favorites — Mutai, Chebet, Wesley Korir, Gebremariam, etc. — regrouped, composing themselves for the demands of the Newton Hills, which they knew were fast approaching.
From miles 14 to 15, spurred by Kisorio’s aggression, the tempo increased to a 4:53 split. From 15 to 16, it ratcheted up to 4:43. Kisorio, Matebo (second in Frankfurt last year), Mutei, Chebet, and Laban and Wesley Korir were the men still in contention — Gebremariam surprisingly was not — and at the toughest part of the course, with conditions at their most severe, the race was on.
A 17-mile split of 1:25:05 revealed a previous mile of 4:50. As the group made the right turn at the Newton firehouse, with the Newton Hills and Heartbreak looming ahead of them, Kisorio and Matebo decided — or maybe just felt — that it was time to do some damage. It wasn’t a surge; more like an application of pressure. The consequence was that the two leaders quickly opened ground on the other contenders, though Mutai paid especially close attention, hanging just two strides off the pace. A further 10 meters back, Wilson Chebet — a four-time sub-60-minute half marathoner — worked to hold close, with Laban Korir a further five meters in arrears. But the race was underway, and the hills and the heat and the continuing pressure of the leaders was about to tell all the tales.
By 17.5, the two leaders had built their lead still further, and Mutai, the defending champion, the fastest marathoner in history, was gone from the fray. Half-a-mile later, he walked off the course, a victim of stomach cramps that left him retching on the sidelines. The 18-mile split of 1:30:01 showed an uphill mile of 4:56, with Kisorio and Matebo running side-by-side. That was how it stayed through 20 miles (1:39:50), though shortly thereafter the consequences of Kisorio’s earlier aggression began to take their toll. Inexorably, a gap began to appear, and while Matebo remained composed — despite the hills, despite the heat, despite the sustained tempo — Kisorio, who had previously looked so powerful, quickly succumbed to the heat of the battle.
The winner was evident — it appeared. Matebo maintained his tempo, opening a lead that quickly stretched to the better part of 150 meters. At 23 miles (1:55:35), the race was over — except that it wasn’t. Though Matebo appeared to be in control, he was quickly running out of gas. Wesley Korir, in contrast, was launching into overdrive. By 24.5 miles, an insurmountable lead had been reduced to totally surmountable. Korir drew alongside the weakening leader, conceded 15 meters approaching the 25-mile water station, then surged ahead, this time determining the outcome for good.
The winning time was slow — 2:12:40 — but it was decisive (Matebo crossed in 2:13:06), and it was thrilling. Sometimes a race is just about winning.
“I didn’t know that I could catch up, but I knew that I had to keep them in sight,” stated Korir, evidently as surprised by his win as anybody. “At mile 20, somebody shouted that I was sixth. Then I moved into fifth, and I thought that if I finished fifth in the Boston Marathon, that would be great. Then I got fourth. Then I moved into third and I thought, ‘I’m going to finish on the podium.’ It just happened. One by one, it just happened.”
For his win, Korir claimed $150,000 of the $806,000 in prize money that was awarded in this year’s race.
Ordinarily one would feel that, in an Olympic year, a Boston win would be an assured ticket to a place on the Games’ starting line in London. Not so this time around, if being a member of the Kenyan squad was your aspiration. For the Kenyan selectors, it was really a question of whom to leave off. When the team was announced in late April, Korir was not among the fortunate ones. Possibly his pain was eased by the fact that neither Mutai (last year’s winner) nor Patrick Makau (the world-record holder) made it, either. Presumably, Korir will now focus on Chicago in the fall, where he placed second in 2011 to Moses Mosop (who, by the way, did get selected for the Summer Games, along with London Marathon winner Wilson Kipsang and two-time defending world champion Abel Kirui).
Just as Korir moved through to deny Matebo the win, so too did Bernard Kipyego take advantage of the attrition, stealing third in 2:13:13. Similarly, the next spot went to the Boulder-based Jason Hartmann, who, having been among the leaders early on, passed them one by one in the later stages to claim fourth place in 2:14:31.
“When those guys took off at 16, 17, I just stayed under control,” explained Hartmann. “A lot of people went with the front group, and I was able to pick a few of those guys off, fortunately for me. It was just a battle.”
With the 2012 B.A.A. Boston Marathon now in the record books, it will be the heat that most dominates in memory. Was it tougher than the oft-remembered Run for the Hoses of 1976? That’s impossible to say. For certain is that, in this race renowned for tradition, the tradition of superb and enthralling competition endured.