And that’s how both elite races panned out, with the leading U.S. competitor running hard from the start in each – the emotion of the occasion setting the tactics as much as the traditional American love of Pre-style ‘pure guts’ front running over the calculation of ‘drafting’.
(The Boston Marathon is different from most major city marathons in not having designated pacers, so the main contenders will always be to the fore. However, there’s still a difference between a group taking turns at the front and a lone runner doing all the heavy lifting without ever dropping back to take a quick breather.)
But while local girl Shalane Flanagan fell short in her gutsy effort at winning the women’s laurels, Californian Meb Keflezighi held off the looming Wilson Chebet in a thrilling climax to become the first American winner of the men’s race in 30 years.
And perhaps Flanagan, 7th in her race, can draw some consolation from her finishing time of 2:22:02, over 3 minutes inside her old personal best and the fastest ever Boston Marathon run by an American woman.
Also, let’s be frank – Flanagan faced a tougher challenge than Keflezighi. She was up against defending champion and Chicago Marathon winner Rita Jeptoo (no relation to the equally-fearsome Priscah) and the impressive Buzunesh Deba, second in her adopted-home New York Marathon last year.
Keflezighi, by contrast, had neither of the Mutais nor Wilson Kipsang to contend with, nor even a star debutant like Mo Farah or Kenenisa Bekele. The most fancied competitor in the men’s field was Dennis Kimetto, a 2:03 runner who won Chicago and Tokyo in 2013.
Flanagan took the women’s field through halfway in a tasty 1:09:27, just inside a 2:19 pace that would have cleared a jaw-dropping 6 minutes off her personal best. And the American did all this from the front, while Jeptoo and Deba were happy to sit on the bus and bide their time.
At 20 miles the inevitable happened. Flanagan couldn’t cover a surge by a group of five runners including Jeptoo and Deba, and fell like a stone back down the field.
Jeptoo kicked on again, this time decisively, around three miles from home to retain her Boston title in a new course record of 2:18:57 – the fifth-fastest women’s marathon of all time, notwithstanding Boston’s status as unratifiable for world record purposes. A minute later came Deba, just one second under 2:20 and also inside the old course record.
In the men’s race, Kimetto was never a contender – Keflezighi led the field through halfway in a steady but conservative 64:21, and then broke first with Josphat Boit and then by himself to build up a lead of almost a minute by the 21-mile mark.
But while the American churned out consistent sub-15-minute 5K splits, Wilson Chebet of Kenya was also working hard to close on him. Sensing danger from behind, Keflezighi almost turned a full 180 degrees at mile 24 to see that Chebet was now only around 15 seconds behind.
The tension in the last mile was almost unbearable. Keflezighi was still turning the legs smoothly but was clearly feeling the pain, and Chebet closed to within 8 seconds.
But then came the realisation that Chebet was more tired than Keflezighi. One more glance behind him confirmed to the American that he could enjoy the run-in on Boylston Street, as he clenched his fists and gestured to the crowd to claim a famous victory in 2:08:37.
Keflezighi’s front-running, gun-to-tape victory was enthralling and brave, and you can only beat what’s in front of you. But to put today’s race in perspective, Mo Farah’s much-criticised 2:08:20 for 9th in this year’s London Marathon would have won today’s men’s Boston Marathon by almost 20 seconds.
Still, it would be churlish to begrudge Keflezighi his win. Both he and Flanagan put in admirable performances today. After the tragedy of last year’s race, today’s Boston Marathon will electrify U.S. athletics and has enthralled a nation.