By James O'Brien
In 2013, Ethiopia's Lelisa Desisa stormed to victory in the 117th Boston Marathon. Twelve months later, he returned with a weight of expectation on his shoulders; the result was a DNF. In 2015 he came to Boston with a point to prove - which he did in demonstrative fashion after a race that was epic from gun to tape, with more plot twists than a soap opera. Desisa stayed strong through less than ideal conditions, breaking the tape on Boylston Street in 2:09:17.
Approaching the 10:00 a.m. start in Hopkinton, the weather was cause for as much conjecture as the contenders. How cold would it be? Was the anticipated rain storm going to come to pass? How much of a factor would the wind be? With the forecast changing almost by the minute, the prevailing conditions were as much of an unknown as the ultimate winner. By the time gun sounded, though, the rain had not arrived, the wind was calm, and the temperatures were chilly, though not dire. That would certainly change as the race unfolded and the blustery winds and rain swept through. But, for the early miles at least, conditions were good for fast running.
Ethiopia's Tadese Tola bolted from the starting line with the evident intention of ensuring that some heat would be injected into the proceedings. Clearly, he - and, no doubt, many of his peers - had no intention of letting any contender charge to an early and unassailable lead, as Meb Keflezighi had done in 2014.
This year was to be different. Tola towed the field through an opening mile of 4:40; his compatriot Gebre Gebremariam kept it going through two miles at a pace only a hair slower and the scene was set for a barn burner.
Through the ensuing rolling miles, you only had to blink to see a new face at the front of the pack. Tola kept himself prominent, as did Gebremariam. Desisa took a turn, as did Boston debutant Yemane Adhane Tsegay from Ethiopia. It was a revolving door of self-appointed pace-makers, all running with one intent: keep it moving.
At the 5K, the split of 14:42 illustrated that this was going to be anything but easy. Gebremariam, twice a third place finisher here, fronted the pack, but in close formation were Desisa, Tola, two-time world marathon champion Abel Kirui (KEN), four-time world half marathon champion Zersenay Tedesse (ETH), last year's second placer Wilson Chebet (KEN), 2012 champion Wesley Korir, defending champion Meb Keflezighi, three of Meb's US teammates - Nick Arciniaga, Matt Tegenkamp and Dathan Ritzenhein - plus a clutch of other world class performers - 17 in total. Notably missing, at this early stage, was Patrick Makau, former world record holder at 2:03:08, who inexplicably had stepped off the course not to be seen again.
With the field maintaining close to 2:04 pace, it was inevitable that there would soon be some attrition. Desisa maintained his position at the forefront, pushing it along in a manner that could have been surmised to be foolish. But push it he did, with Tola, Tsegay, Gebremariam and most of the gang close by. US hopes took an early blow, though, with Tegenkamp and Ritzenhein being among the first casualties. As the pace waned momentarily, the US duo managed to get back on terms; but it was a momentary flirtation. The leaders hammered onward and Tegenkamp and Ritzenhein were off the back.
The 5 mile marker was passed in 23:50 with Tola holding the lead and a pack of 13 hovering on his shoulder. At 10 miles, the split was 48:10. The pack was holding tight - with two Americans, Meb and Arciniaga in its midst. Tegenkamp and Ritzenhein were gone - except that nobody told the latter. As the pace eased marginally - 12 miles in 58:10, 13 miles in 1:03:27; a 2:08 tempo, down from the previous 2:04 - Ritzenhein forged his way back into contention. Having been well off the pace, the Rockford, Mich., based three-time Olympian, surged back with such impetus that, by the time the leaders reached the half way mark (1:04:00), the American was at the forefront, pushing the pace with Tsegay hanging on his shoulder.
Not only was this a remarkable change of fortune, but the ease with which Ritzenhein cruised from the outhouse to the penthouse fanned the flames of hope among spectators that, yes, an American could win this race again. Meb, after all, was still there, too, along with Arciniaga. Half the race gone; three Americans in contention and looking good. But there was a spoiler: immediately alongside them was a dozen or so of the world's finest - Kirui, Korir, Gebremariam, Tola, Desisa, Frankline Chepkwony (KEN), Wilson Chebet (KEN), Bernard Kipyego (KEN), and a handful more - all looking as if the race hadn't yet begun. Which it hadn't. The hills were coming.
Through 14 (1:08:23), 15 (1:13:24) and 16 miles (1:18:06), Ritzenhein retained his place at the pole. Every so often Desisa or Tsegay or Tola injected a turn of pace; but, Ritz was the rabbit, looking, it must be said, consummately at ease. As every Boston Marathoner knows, however, the miles from 16 to 21 are the determining factor in dreams coming true or nightmares becoming reality. The climbs - three of them, collectively known as the Newton Hills, culminating in Heartbreak - come almost immediately after the right hand turn at the Newton Firehouse. Prior to that, the hills are rolling; at this point they become significant.
Ritzenhein had been in the lead; but the moment the climb began, he drifted to the back of the pack of 11. Korir surged to the front, his first turn as pace-maker. Then it was Desisa's turn; then Tesgay's; then Chepkwony's. The knot of leaders became a string and indications were that the race was on.
Cresting the first hill, however, the pace eased and the group congealed once more, and - guess what? - Ritzenhein was back in the lead and looking as smooth as ever. The 17 mile mark was passed in 1:23:30, a 5:24 mile, the slowest of the race thus far. At 18, still climbing, the clock read 1:28:42, with all but Gebremariam hanging tight. Remaining in the fray were Tsegay, Keflezighi, Desisa, Korir, Chepkwony, Chebet, Kipyego, Tola and Ritzenhein, plus South Africa's Lusapho April, an intimidating group, with nobody giving any indication of who was frisky and who was fried.
Through 20 miles (1:39:01), approaching the crest of Heartbreak Hill, Ritzenhein continued to press as the pack of 10 fanned out across the road. At 21, another hard fought mile was reflected in the 1:44:26/5:25 split; but Ritzenhein kept hammering.
Once the hills are conquered, though, the Boston course begins phase three. Phase 1, from Hopkinton to the Newton Firehouse is rolling and freewheeling; Phase 2, the Newton Hills, are a grind, pure and simple; Phase 3, is a flat out blast into Boston. Broad straights, long, sweeping descents, raucous crowds. If you've got anything left at all, this is where you lay it on the line; and, if you haven't, this is where your longest day begins.
As the 22 mile mark approached, Tsegay put his foot down and the real racing began. Ritzenhein was gone almost immediately, accompanied by April. Along with Tsegay in the seven man pack were Desisa, Keflezighi, Korir, Chebet, Kipyego and Chepkwony. But Desisa was looking powerful, apparently not at all fatigued by his several turns at the front in the earlier miles. The 22 mile mark was passed in 1:49:13 (4:47) and 23 in 1:53:55 (4:42). Desisa was flying, Tsegay was hanging close and everybody else was suffering. Chepkwony, Chebet, Korir, Kipyego and the defender Keflezighi all gave ground and it was down to just two.
Keflezighi's hopes of victory may have been done, but drama remained. As the pace increased and he attempted to cover, he grabbed a water bottle and took a slug that went down the wrong way - badly. "Desisa was pushing hard," he explained later. "I responded, but I was carrying my water bottle. I took water and it didn't go down well. I had to stop five times to throw up. I had felt comfortable the whole way. I didn't have any problems before that."
While Keflezighi dealt with his issues, the leaders were flying. Desisa was the aggressor, forging onward with less than three miles remaining and opening a full 20 meter lead on Tsegay. At 24 (1:58:31/4:36), the chaser narrowed the margin to five meters, then to zero, and with the winner still to be decided, Tsegay visibly put his head down and surged. It should have been a decisive blow; in fact, it was. It was Tsegay's gasp. Desisa weathered the challenge, then surged away, creating an ever-widening margin that brought him through 25 miles in 2:03:23/4:52 and to the finish line in 2:09:17. Tsegay was as jubilant in second as he was exhausted, waving to the raucous crowd, crossing the finish line 35 seconds down in 2:09:48. Chebet, second here in 2014, held on for third in 2:10:22. Keflezighi gutted it out, placing eighth in 2:12:42 - "I wanted to get to the finish line. It just took a long time" - though he had to concede to Ritzenhein in the closing miles, who edged through to seventh in 2:11:20.
"I'm happy and excited for my second victory," Desisa stated, as he should have been, given his $150,000 first place prize. "I saw in 2013 where to stop and hold back and where the ups and downs are. I worked with my coach to prepare for the course better and did more training that I did in 2013. During the race, after 35K, knowing who was around me, I knew I was going to win because my speed was greater than theirs."
Commented the deposed champion, Keflezighi: "Congrats to Lelisa and all of the runners here. We all worked so hard. I hoped that it would come together for me in the last mile or two, but I couldn't get it done. But I gave it my best today."
In the master's competition - in which category Meb will be eligible to compete next year - the victory went to Italy's Danilo Goffi (42) who scored a resounding victory over Canada's Christian Mercier (40), 2:18:44 to 2:24:37. Mercier had a less comfortable finish, fending off a second Italian, Said Boudalia (46), who crossed the line just 12 seconds later in 2:24:49.
Reflections on the 119th Boston Marathon will invariably include memories of the wind and rain and cold. But those memories will certainly be subsumed by remembrances of an inspiringly tough competition and a masterful new winner.
Next year, the hallowed race turns 120. One can only speculate on the marvelous, and celebratory, competition that will be in store for that special occasion.