Story by Barbara Huebner
In 2006, Rita Jeptoo won the Boston Marathon by 10 seconds. At the time, it was the closest margin of victory in the history of the race. Between 2008 and 2012, the women’s races were decided by a total—a total—of 10 seconds. Jeptoo was not a factor in any of them.
This year, it was time for a change on both counts. While the women’s race of the 117th Boston Marathon had plenty of drama, the outcome was decided before the turn onto Hereford Street and it was the resurgent Jeptoo leading the way. Pumping her right arm in victory, she became a two-time Boston Marathon winner, claiming her second victory seven years after her first.
“Today I was running like 2006,” said the 32-year-old Kenyan, who missed all of 2009 and 2010 to maternity. “I was ready when I came to Boston.”
Jeptoo’s time of 2:26:25 was 33 seconds ahead of runner-up Meseret Hailu of Ethiopia. Defending champion Sharon Cherop of Kenya was third, in 2:27:01, with Shalane Flanagan, who grew up in nearby Marblehead, Mass., fourth in 2:27:08. Defending her master’s title was Svetlana Pretot, 41, of France, in 2:38:19.
Marking the 30th anniversary of her 2:22:43 world best Boston Marathon victory in 1983, Joan Samuelson came into the race hoping to run sub-2:52:43, less than one minute slower for each year in between. She met that goal, and then some: her time of 2:50:29 was the fastest marathon ever run by a woman in the 55-59 age group. The previous best was Rae Baymiller’s 2:52:14.
“I felt good,” said Samuelson, who will turn 56 on May 16. “I felt strong. I went a little bit out on a limb with that projection. … I pushed it to the max with my training.”
For the pro women, the race began—after a roar from the crowd for Flanagan during introductions—under partly sunny skies with a temperature of 48 degrees, a far cry from the heat of 2012. Early front-runner Manami Kamitanida, a 23-year-old from Japan, nonetheless went through the first mile at a 6:04 crawl. She was soon joined by compatriot Yuka Yano and Yolanda Caballero, a 31-year-old Colombian returning to Boston for the first time since the death of her husband in January 2012.
By Mile 3, Germany’s Sabrina Mockenhaupt and Portugal’s Ana Dulce Felix had joined them to form a small breakaway pack. By 5K, Kamitanida was falling away, with the top four going through in a pedestrian 18:22, on pace for a 2:34:55 finish and 17 seconds ahead of the chase pack, which included Flanagan and training partner Kara Goucher.
As the women passed the Mile 8 marker, Diana Sigei of Kenya joined the group, and at 10 miles it was Sigei and Caballero in 53:04. Trailing them by 12 seconds was a pack of about 10 runners, tellingly led by Jeptoo. But just as they began the 11th mile, Caballero took off. With a stride that looks more at home on a miler than on a marathoner, the national distance champion at 5000 and 10,000 meters darted to a 31-second lead by halfway, which she hit in 1:14:02.
Then Felix came alive. The reigning European Champion at 10,000 meters with a marathon personal best of 2:25:40, the 30-year-old gained 26 seconds on Caballero in just over 2.5 miles, and by 25K was only six seconds behind her prey. At the bottom of the hill at Newton Lower Falls, Dulce grabbed her fluids from a table, took a swig, tossed the bottle, looked twice over her right shoulders as she pulled out to pass, and left Caballero behind for good.
Meanwhile, concern rippled through the pack. “It’s really hard as a competitor to watch two women just pull away from the field and just say ‘we’re gonna catch them’ and have that faith,” said Flanagan, under orders from her coach, Jerry Schumacher, not to make any first moves. “I was really antsy. I did not like not having a full group together.”
Alone Felix ran through the Newton Hills, her ponytail swinging, her expression never changing. Mile after mile, looking smooth. Could she run away with the race? At 35K, with less than five miles to go, she led by just over a minute.
So why did she keep looking over her shoulder? One look, no one in sight. Another look, no one in sight. Another look, 100 meters later. The same. But still she checked, and double-checked, and triple.
Finally, just past Cleveland Circle, she saw what she must have feared: They were coming, and fast. With six kilometers to go, Cherop said, she told Jeptoo that they could wait no longer. “Let us move forward,” she told her, “or this lady will end up winning.”
After 23 miles of relative dawdling, the race was on, with the veteran Jeptoo in command. Since her Boston debut, in which she earned the only major marathon victory of her career, Jeptoo had returned to finish fourth (2007), third (2008), and sixth (2011) after taking two full years off for maternity.
“Last year, I was not ready,” she said.
By last fall, she was. At the Bank of America Chicago Marathon, Jeptoo announced that she was back with a runner-up finish in a personal best 2:22:04 and then she ran 1:06:27 for a half marathon in February. Few were surprised when she took command in the late stages on Patriots' Day.
Just before Mile 25, Jeptoo—on the strength of a blistering 5:10 mile—caught Felix, who yielded without a fight and soldiered on to finish ninth.
On Jeptoo’s heels as she dashed up Commonwealth Avenue, however, were a pair of known threats: Hailu, whose 2:21:09 personal best was the fastest in the field, followed closely by Cherop. It was the third consecutive year that Cherop, wearing bib #1 as defending champion, was in the hunt late in the race. Flanagan, suffering on the downhills and falling back, kept driving, certain that Jeptoo was gone for good but hoping, in vain, that one of the other two would fall back in exhaustion.
By the time Jeptoo rounded the turn onto Hereford Street, the race was wrapped up.
So were the hearts of Flanagan and Goucher, who fought off injuries in training to finish sixth.
“I don’t think it gets much better than that,” said Flanagan, whose childhood was spent watching her father, Steve, run down Boylston Steet spurring her love of running and dream of someday winning this race. “The hardest part about Boston is that the Bostonians want it just as bad as you do. There were moments when I had chills, there were moments when my ears hurt they were yelling so loud. We may not have the laurel wreath on our heads, but we have some great memories.”