The elite men danced nervously just behind the starting line as they waited for the first wave start of the 121st B.A.A. Marathon. As the men’s favorites were introduced, the largest ovation was saved for American Meb Keflezighi – the 2014 champion and the first American to win this Patriots’ Day race since 1983. As the crowd favorite joined other elite Americans Galen Rupp, Luke Puskedra, Jared Ward, Abdi Abdirahman, Shadrack Biwott, and newbie Augustus Maiyo at the starting line, there was pervasive speculation as to how the Yanks might fare in the 42 kilometer battle against a field that included the defending champion Lemi Hayle of Ethiopia, Kenya’s Geoffrey Kirui, Emmanuel Mutai, Wilson Chebet, and 2012 Boston winner Wesley Korir.
After an easy two mile downhill warm-up in 9:54, the elite men upped the ante with the lead pack hitting 4 miles in 19:40. Shortly thereafter, pre-race favorite Mutai – running in his first Boston – charged to the front and began serving up a steady diet of miles well under 5:00. Rio bronze medalist Rupp, 2004 Olympic silver medalist Keflezighi, and 4-time Olympian Abdirahman were embedded in the lead pack with their fellow countrymen Puskedra and Ward 15 meters back.
With Mutai – unfazed by the competitors in his wake – continuing to push the pace, the Kenyan leader headed up a lead pack of about 15 athletes who split 10 miles in 49:11. The Kenyan leader was followed closely by Ethiopia’s Yemane Tsegay in 2nd and the white-hatted Rupp in 3rd.
Shortly after the bunched athletes in the lead crossed the halfway mark in 1:04:01, Rupp – looking frisky – took a temporary lead at the 15 mile mark. Passing 25K in 1:15:43, the leaders roared downhill into Lower Newton Falls. All knew the Newton Hills – the authentic start of serious racing – loomed ahead. The climb up the first ascent – the exposed, shadeless hill up to and over Route 128 – trimmed the lead group to 10 as the leaders raced on toward the Newton Fire Station.
Wilson Chebet briefly eased into the lead and his 5:16 mile pulled the leaders past the 17 mile mark in 1:24:24. The Newton crowd exploded as the leaders turned right and passed the fire station with Rupp holding onto a slight lead, with ’16 champion Hayle, Kirui, Chebet, Abdirahman, Maiyo; and Kenya’s Sammy Kitwara in close pursuit. Now the lead pack was down to 7.
As the runners continued to climb, the athletes’ strain was apparent. After two more ascents and on the way to Heartbreak Hill, the trio of Kirui, Rupp, and the remarkable 38-year old Abdirahman ran the 20th mile in 5:04 and broke away to gain a 12 meter lead as several others were sliding off the back.
Shortly after the threesome had laid down a 5:03 mile to crest Heartbreak at Boston College, the game Abdirahman let go. Rupp made the Sign of the Cross as he and Kirui – elbow to elbow – free-wheeled downhill past BC. Once again the Newton Hills – the Grim Reaper of this race – had dispatched most of those who were in the lead pack just 20 minutes earlier.
With two left to battle for the laurel wreath, suddenly the race was transformed – to use golf parlance – from medal play to match play. Quick backward glances confirmed that they had broken free as the Rupp and Kirui traded subtle, probing surges as the two combatants felt each other out. But the coy Kenyan had so much left. As the duo raced toward Bill Squire’s Cemetery of Broken Dreams, Kirui unfurled an absolutely jaw-dropping sequence of mile splits – racing from Mile 21 to Mile 25 in 4:39, 4:46, 4:27, and 4:49. It was a breathtaking performance that Rupp – a 2-time Olympic medalist – confessed afterwards he simply couldn’t cover.
Once through Kenmore Circle, Kirui raced virtually unchallenged to the finish, crossing the line in 2:09:37. Rupp closed hard – and he had to – finishing 2nd in a PR 2:09:58 with Japan’s Suguru Osako – craftily running just off the lead back – ran 2:10:28 to grab 3rd in his marathon debut. The early leader – the seemingly-invincible Mutai – perhaps selected the wrong race strategy for a hot-day Boston debut and faded to 18th in 2:19:33.
At the post-race press conference, the new champion was happy and succinct about his race. “I am happy to see the Kenyans do well,” proclaimed Geoffrey Kirui who was joined in the top 10 by Chebet [5th in 2:12:35]. And in what was surely the understatement of the day, Kirui added, “I tried to push it at the end.”
Runner-up Rupp – often soft-spoken in post-race conversations – was downright effusive afterwards. “I was thrilled today. It was an experience like nothing I’ve ever had before,” Rupp exclaimed. “I just didn’t have a response [to Kirui’s final miles]. Two finish second – I was pleased with it.” The former Oregon star offered insight into his plantar fasciitis. “I have been up and down this whole winter. I have a lot of room to grow. I just didn’t have it the last 4 miles. Two weeks I didn’t even know I could run here.” The Nike athlete accorded nothing but respect to Kirui and his impressive win. “He put in a couple of good moves after we crested Heartbreak Hill and I just couldn’t stay up with him.” Rupp also expressed respect for the challenging Boston course. “Anybody who has run this race knows the last several miles are hard. I was happy to be able to close it out. But this guy [Kirui] was terrific today.” Rupp was clear about his future plans. “I want to take some time off and then move back to the track because that is where my goals are this year. And next year I plan to move up to the marathon full time.” In closing he added, “I would like to come back here. This is a first class race.”
The elite American men – erasing what proved to be unfounded concerns about their competitiveness – performed most admirably, placing 5 athletes in the top 10. Following runner-up Rupp were Shadrack Biwott [4th in 2:12:08], Abdi Abdirahman [6th in 2:12:45, winning Masters Division], Augustus Maiyo [7th in a debut 2:13:16], Luke Puskedra [9th in 2:14:45] and Jared Ward – 6th place finisher in the Rio Olympic marathon [10th in 2:15:28]. The last time 5 American men finished in the top 10 at Boston was – wait for it – 1985.
Sentimental favorite Meb Keflezighi ran a valiant race – finishing 13th in 2:17:00. While never a threat for the laurel wreath, the 2014 champion was the Masters runnerup to Abdirahman, in what he reaffirmed will be his last Boston Marathon. Before waving goodbye to the cheering Boylston Street crowd, Keflezighi hinted that he would welcome the opportunity to play a role of some sort on future Patriots’ Days. “I hope to a part of this sport a long time,” he offered coyly. It is a sentiment surely shared by thousands who ran and cheered here today.