By Barbara Huebner
When hometown favorite Shalane Flanagan took the first mile of the 118th Boston Marathon out in 5:11, defending champion Rita Jeptoo thought she was in a world of trouble.
“My body was not responding well,” said the 33-year-old Kenyan, who was chasing her third victory here after wins in 2006 and 2013. “Today was like fire when we were starting. I was like somebody not ready to run this pace.”
Instead, it turned out that she was just in another world. Around the 25-kilometer mark (15.5 miles), the woman ranked #2 in the world last year began to feel better. A lot better. By Mile 23, Jeptoo was in the lead, then promptly blistered a 4:48 mile—faster than all but three in the men’s race—to win in 2:18:57, shattering the course record of 2:20:43 set by Kenya’s Margaret Okayo in 2002.
She wasn’t the only comet in what was billed as the deepest field in race history, a group that was met with early temperatures in the 40s and only barely a whisper of a wind. The second- and third-place women, Ethiopians Buzunesh Deba and Mare Dibaba, also broke the previous record by finishing in 2:19:59 and 2:20:35, respectively, and even the woman who came in fourth, Jeptoo’s training partner Jemima Jelagat Sumgong, broke the mark with her time of 2:20:41.
Flanagan, the hometown favorite who was raised in nearby Marblehead, MA, finished seventh, in 2:22:02, which makes her not only the top American woman in the 2014 race but the fastest American woman here in history.
Overall, the top 10 female finishers all ran the fastest time for place in the history of the Boston Marathon, with American Desiree Linden’s 10th-place time of 2:23:54 more than three minutes ahead of the previous fastest time recorded for that spot. Indeed, places six through 11 are the fastest women’s times for place in the history of the sport.
Lidia Simon, the five-time Olympian for Romania, won the master’s division in 2:36:47, while Joan Samuelson, 56, unofficially became the fastest 56-year-old woman in history with her time of 2:52:11.
Fittingly, it was the 1984 Olympic gold medalist and two-time winner of this race who inspired the fast pace up front.
“I have a good friend, Joan Benoit Samuelson, and for three years she’s told me to run my own race,” said Flanagan, 32. “Today, I wanted to go out and do just that. I wanted to see if I was good enough to win the olive wreath.”
For 19 miles, it looked as if she might be. Taking a pack of eight through the halfway point in 1:09:27, Flanagan had been in command almost every step of the way, scorching through the early miles to the screaming delight of huge crowds hungry for a hometown victor. (“I’m surprised at how many women went with me,” she said. “I thought that what I’d set out to do would give me the win.”) Glancing at her watch at every mile marker, Flanagan ran with shoulders squared and head held high, attacking the tangents like someone who had traveled from Portland, OR, six times in the past six months to train on the course, absorbing every inch and nuance.
Flanagan has said that winning the Boston Marathon would trump an Olympic medal, and that winning it in 2014, after last year’s tragedy, was a special mission.
“Every push-up that I did, every crunch I did, every little shake-out run, every stride,” she said of her motivation to ease the pain of her city. “There was a purpose to everything that I did.”
But coming up Heartbreak Hill, the pack that Flanagan had been leading—Jeptoo, Sumgong, Deba, Dibaba, and Ethiopia’s Meselech Melkamu—took off. The 2011 Boston Marathon champion, Caroline Kilel, had been dropped miles earlier; then it was 2012 winner Sharon Cherop who fell off the pace before Flanagan was left behind. By Mile 23 Jeptoo had shaken Deba, Sumgong, Dibaba, and finally Melkamu, the last of her rivals, before blazing to the record-demolishing victory in a personal best of exactly one minute.
The three-time winner gave credit to Flanagan for sparking the historic run.
“The pace today was very, very high,” said Jeptoo. “She was tough.”
Flanagan fought back tears several times during the post-race press conference. “I don’t wish it were an easier race,” she said. “I just wish I were better. I will be back here until I win it.”