By James O’Brien
Japan’s Yuki Kawauchi won the men’s race at the 122nd Boston Marathon in such dramatic fashion that it will surely be recalled alongside such epics as the Duel in the Sun of 1982 and the Johnny Kelley/Ellison Brown battle of 1936. A customarily deep field ensured that the mano a mano competition would always be the focus of the day; but, with conditions ranging from consistently heavy rain to a veritable monsoon, it was undeniable that the weather was enormously significant in the outcome.
Even Kawauchi assented. “I think the conditions were instrumental in pulling off this victory,” he stated after crossing the Boylston Street finish line in a time of 2:15:58, the slowest winning time since 1976 (when it was blazing hot), but still almost two and a half minutes up on second placed Geoffrey Kirui, the defending champion (2:18:23) and a further twelve seconds ahead of third placed Shadrack Biwott (2:18:35).
The race may have been slow, but the manner of Kawauchi’s victory was enthralling. As he conceded, “I bet there’s not a single person in Boston who thought that I would win today.” Saliently, he added, “But, in the marathon anything can happen.”
It wasn’t just the fact of the upset, it was the manner in which the win was earned. Always in Boston, a runner bolts off the start line, into a sizeable lead, only to fade and never be seen again. Kawauchi was that runner this year, defying the torrential rain and blustery winds and blasting through the first mile in 4:37 with a 13 second lead over a pack of 25 runners that included Kirui (KEN), 2016 winner Lemi Berhanu (ETH), 2013 and 2015 winner Lelisa Desisa (ETH) and 2017 Chicago champ (and Boston second placer) Galen Rupp. One mile later (9:30), the gap was down to eight seconds, and the inevitable seemed about to happen. Except that it didn’t.
The miles rolled by and gradually others joined Kawauchi. Felix Kandie was the aggressor as the group pushed through 10 miles in 49:51, with the rain coming down in torrents. Still, the leaders appeared unfazed.
The first move of consequence came just past 16 miles. Kawauchi had been biding his time among the lead pack. As the severe climb over Route 128 rose before him, Kawauchi surged to the forefront, opening an immediate five meter lead and inflicting the first significant damage on this field.
“I just wanted to take it out at an honest pace so I could get rid of some people,” commented Kawauchi, who contested 12 marathons in 2017, plus a bitterly cold New Year’s Day marathon in Marshfield, MA in freezing temperatures.
Among the casualties at this stage was Rupp, who lost an immediate 15 meters and progressively fell from the fray. Not so for Kirui; the defending champ appeared poised, composed and comfortable, covering the move and surging back alongside Kawauchi together with a handful of others.
Almost immediately after the famed Newton Firehouse turn, the defending champion in Kirui surged into the lead, taking the right turn like a sprinter. To mile 18, Kirui clocked a 5:02 mile. Then came a 4:51; then a 5:03, and there was nobody in sight. Wilson Chebet was engaged in a silver medal tussle with Berhanu and, remarkably, Kawauchi; but, for all intents and purposes, the victor had been decided.
The subtleties told a different story. Having forged a seemingly insurmountable lead, Kirui repeatedly looked over his shoulder. His form looked immaculate, but the strain of battling the severe headwinds was evident on his face. With every meter precious at this stage, he failed to run the tangents. And, at a time when focus was key, he lost precious time going out of his way to seek water from the roadside tables. On their own, the signs meant little. Together, they told a tale.
Ninety seconds down, Kawauchi could have seen none of this; but, with three kilometers remaining, he must have sensed the sea change.
“I told myself to just keep going forward, forward, forward,” he explained. “To run my own race and keep going.”
At 40K, the man who had led through the first mile assumed that position again. Kirui, having had the laurel wreath within his grasp, clocked a 6:29 split to mile 25, a depth from which there was no returning. As the defending champion struggled to keep going, Kawauchi surged past and on to a glorious win, the first by a Japanese since Tosihiko Seko in 1987 - the year Kawauchi was born.
Shadrack Biwott was the top American in third, timing 2:18:35. “Man, it was a tough one,” said Biwott. “During the race I kept reminding myself to relax. It was a struggle to find all breaks… Even on a tough race, I just relax and run my race and don’t panic.”
In the master’s division, four-time Olympian Abdi Abdirahman (Tucson, AZ) dominated the competition, taking the $10,000 first place prize with a 2:28:18.