By Barbara Huebner
When she arrived in Boston last week, Worknesh Degefa’s marathon resume included one race: Dubai, which she has run the past three years. With the elevation profile of a dining room table, it does not seem the ideal training ground for Heartbreak Hill and its Newton brethren.
But Arsi, a zone of the Oromia Region in Ethiopia? That’s another matter. And that’s where Degefa trains, on hills that both mimic and dwarf the ones she tackled on Monday. Toss in the memory of last year’s TV coverage (“I put that video in my mind today”) and a 2:17:41 personal best, and the fastest woman in the 2019 Boston Marathon field – despite having never seen the course in person – needed only one more ingredient: nerve.
“I am ready to win,” said the 28-year-old, the fourth-fastest woman in history at the distance, at the pre-race press conference.
And that’s what she did, outlasting a late-race surge by 2017 Boston champion Edna Kiplagat to win in 2:23:31. Kiplagat finished as runner-up in 2:24:13, closing a gap that had grown to 2:59 by 30K to just 42 seconds. Third, and top American, was Jordan Hasay in 2:25:20.
Degefa took home $150,000 for the victory.
“I’m happy the race took place after the rain was done,” she said, referring to an early morning deluge. I’m so happy that I won. Today is the most wonderful.”
The marker for Mile 5 had not yet been reached when Degefa began to put it all together. After pedestrian early miles of 5:47, 5:43 and 5:40,
Degefa threw down a 5:23, followed by a 5:16 and then a 5:12 – the fastest of the day – as she sensed the need to get away early from veteran strategists such as Kiplagat, 2012 champion Sharon Cherop and defending champion Des Linden.
“If I stayed longer, at the finish maybe I would not make it. I knew I had some speed,” Degefa explained.
At first, Cherop and Mare Dibaba, the 2016 Olympic bronze medalist who has twice finished second here, gave chase, but they were reeled in by the pack before 20K while Degefa continued to build her lead.
“You know [Degefa’s] ability,” said Linden, who would finish fifth in 2:27:00 and tried to keep Hasay from getting too anxious. “You know what she’s done in Dubai [2:19:53 and 2:22:36 in addition to her PB] but you wonder how it translates to this course. And you wonder when she starts putting down those super quick miles. You say, ‘all right, this is her race to lose.’”
Degefa hit the halfway point in a dazzling 1:10:40, 2:27 ahead of a huge pack with the hills looming. That lead grew to almost three minutes and was still 2:26 at 35K, but the runner who had looked unbreakable a while back was beginning to show some cracks. At one point in the Newton Hills, she had crossed herself twice, looked over her shoulder, glanced at her watch. She was slowing down, and she knew it.
Meanwhile, Kiplagat had thought that if they kept increasing their pace together, the pack might catch Degefa before the finish line. She realized, however, that time was running out, so she mounted a solo pursuit. It was as futile as it was valiant, but Kiplagat was not sorry she tried.
“It was good for me because I was able to be second, and I am happy about it,” said the indefatigable 39-year-old Kiplagat, a two-time IAAF World Champion.
Hasay, 28, was top American in her comeback from a pair of stress fractures in her left heel, the first of which had caused her to withdraw from Boston last year the day before the race. She had not run a marathon since the Chicago Marathon in 2017, where her 2:20:57 made her the second-fastest American woman in history.
“Once Edna made that strong move I just tried to close hard,” Hasay said. “I was in fourth, so I was just proud to catch back up to third and get the Americans on the podium again.”
Winning the masters division was Kate Landau of Jacksonville, Florida, in 2:31:56, while Joan Benoit Samuelson, the two-time Boston champion and 1984 Olympic gold medalist, succeeded in her goal of running within 40 minutes of her 1979 winning time 40 years ago (2:35:15), coming across the line in 3:04:00.