By Jean Cann
The push-rim wheelchair division at the 120th Boston Marathon saw a near photo finish for the men, and a dominant win in the women’s race. The first three finishers in the men’s competition sprinted across the finish within a second of one another after racing together for most of the race. Defending champion Marcel Hug (SUI), ten-time champion Ernst van Dyk (RSA), and Australian Kurt Fearnley all crossed the line with an official time of 1:24:06, but Hug broke the tape to earn the top spot. McFadden, the women’s winner for the last three years, took the lead before the halfway point and never looked back, capturing her fourth Boston win in as many tries with a time of 1:42:16.
Both McFadden and Hug became the first athletes to win a race in the inaugural Abbott World Marathon Majors Wheelchair Series, which commenced at Boston this year and finishes at Boston in 2017. “This gives me great confidence and there is still a long way to go,” said Hug. “In the past, each marathon is just another win, but I’m really happy to have the first win in the Majors series.” The men’s and women’s winner at the end of the series will each receive a $50,000 prize in addition to the prize money they earn at each individual Abbott World Marathon Majors race.
The series started swiftly at Boston, as a large pack of men flew through five kilometers in just over seven minutes, before Hug, Fearnley, and van Dyk, along with American James Senbeta, broke away for a 15 second lead at 10k. By 15K, the trio had dropped Senbeta and the rest of the field. No competitor drew within 30 seconds of the three for the remainder of the race. “I tried to follow the guys, follow Ernst, who is the best on the downhills,” said Hug. “It was uphill after 7K and we really pushed along. I don’t like to be in a big pack, especially downhill, but we all had a good start.”
Hug and Fearnley pulled away between 25K and 30K from van Dyk by as much as 17 seconds, according to the native of South Africa. Of being left behind on the Newton hills, van Dyk said with a laugh, “I was collecting myself. I was collecting the pieces on the ground.”
He added, “Kurt and Marcel are about half my weight, and they are very good climbers. They put on a lot of attacks on the hill. Of course I couldn’t follow. But I know this course, and I know there is always a downhill after the uphill. I knew that if I didn’t lose more than 40 seconds, I would get back to them before the finish.” By 35K, he had caught the pair.
Fighting a headwind at times, the three sped down Beacon Street and through Kenmore Square until the final turns on Hereford and Boylston Street. Heading onto the final stretch, van Dyk expected a battle. “I knew I was going up against two phenomenal sprinters. These guys are going to [the Paralympics in] Rio on the track and they are very good, so I knew I was really, in my mind, aiming for third,” he said. “But we are all fighters and just trying to last. For a split second, when I saw Kurt go around Marcel, I thought ‘That’s it.’ I kind of gave up for half a second, and then realized maybe I could something. I picked up the pace, and it was ultimately a photo finish for second. ”
Fearnley, who finished second at Boston in 2011 and 2012, has won every major marathon except for Boston, and the title eluded him again this year. About what was going through his head in the final sprint, he said, “Pain. Pain. Pain. Pain. Then the heartbreak.” Despite the heartbreak, he rationalized, “that last 10 seconds it was just like hold, hold, hold, hold. But that’s the closest finish I’ve ever been a part of and I have been second here in Boston twice.”
The 1:24:06 clocked by all three men at the finish took five minutes off Hug’s winning time from last year. He attributed the faster time partly to having raced the whole way with van Dyk and Fearnley, as opposed to last year when he broke away early. He also felt that the warmer, dryer conditions helped speed up times. Fearnley bettered his 2015 time by 22 minutes.
Tatyana McFadden captured her fourth straight Boston title, though had to make a calculated move mid-race to take the lead for good.
Five-time Boston Marathon champion and course record holder Wakako Tsuchida jumped out to an early lead. “I wanted to take advantage of my strengths in downhill and knew that others would be challenging me and wanted to be prepared for that,” said Tsuchida, who last won Boston in 2011.
Despite some nerves at the beginning, McFadden said she “just needed to remember that the race is 26.2 miles and to stay relaxed. I was really confident that once I hit the climbs, that was my strongest area. I needed to focus on that and take the downhills as they came.”
Trailing Tsuchida by 1:17 at 5K and 1:11 at 10K, McFadden bided her time, closing the gap to 35 seconds by the 15K mark in Natick before catching and passing the frontrunner. McFadden led by 21 seconds at 20K in Wellesley and continued to increase her lead to over a minute, leading by as much as a minute-and-a-half near 35K. She earned her fourth Boston Marathon laurel wreath, finishing in 1:42:16, her second fastest time on the course.
“Boston was definitely electric today,” said the champion. “I love this city and thank you to the fans that were out there cheering today.”
Manuela Schär of Switzerland raced between Tsuchida and McFadden in the early miles. “I know that Wakako [Tsuchida] is fast on the downhill, and I planned to stay behind her,” she said. “I always saw her ahead of me and I was chasing her, and I also knew Tatyana was chasing us. It was like a time trial race today.”
After McFadden had passed her, she drew even with Tsuchida by the half-way mark. With the fastest qualifying time (1:38:42) in the field, Schär looked to improve on her fourth place finish from 2014. She finished second to McFadden at London, Chicago, and New York last year, and repeated that place at Boston on Monday, nipping Tsuchida by four seconds, 1:43:30 to 1:43:34. “It’s amazing. I just started doing marathons three years ago,” said the 31-year-old. “I have only come in second place so far, and I can only dream of coming in first in a [Abbott] World Marathon Major. But that is my goal.”
Of her third place finish, Tsuchida said, “I am very proud and honored to be running with these athletes. I am very competitive and honored to be in Boston and be challenged with these great athletes like Tatyana.”
Americans Susannah Scaroni and Amanda McGrory, who will both compete on the track for Team U.S.A. at the Rio Paralympics, placed fourth and fifth in 1:46:53 and 1:49:31. Recent Acton-Boxborough (Mass.) High School graduate Katrina Gerhard, 19, finished 10th in her Boston Marathon debut.
Summing up her fourth Boston win, McFadden said, “It’s definitely an honor. Legends have come before me. When I was first thinking about Boston, it was such a prestigious race and I was really nervous to do it in the beginning. But I love to race, I love to run, and I love racing with these girls and they really are wonderful to watch. To be in their company and the company of those before me is really, really honoring.”
Hug, McFadden and Boston’s other top finishers will not be able to rest on their laurels, as they have less than a week before they race at London, the second race in the inaugural Abbott World Marathon Majors Wheelchair Series. Veteran competitor van Dyk knows that the series will not be decided in just two races. “I think it’s going to take consistency,” he said. “You can’t win a race and then finish fifth or sixth. In addition, recovery is key, especially for this race right before London. For every race, the points become critical. Plus a lot of things can go wrong, like a flat tire or a crash. So consistency every race, being in the top three is what it’s going to take to win.”