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The 111th Running of the Boston Marathon - The Men's Race
by John Elliott/Sharon Ekstrom
After a record-setting 2006 Boston Marathon which, arguably, could be considered the best and most strategic Boston Marathon in its 110 year history, we had high hopes for the 2007 edition. 2006 winner and course-record holder, Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot, was returning to defend his title after proving to be the master of the Boston Marathon course. Benjamin Maiyo, who gained a significant lead over the rest of the field in 2006 by running a super-record pace withered in the final miles of the course but was still able to hold onto second place. When we spoke with Maiyo in the days before the 2007 race, he said that he knew he had made a huge mistake in 2006 and would run 2007 in an opposite fashion - in our estimation the strength and guts shown in 2006 combined with a better understanding and respect would give Maiyo a strong chance to improve on his runner-up status of 2006. In addition to these two leading men, there was a strong lineup of supporting players - mostly made up of Kenyans and the occasional Japanese, Ethiopian and American.
With inches of rain and gale-force winds sweeping the region the week before the race, the top story shifted from the athletes to the weather. Where the 2006 marathon saw the best possible racing conditions, the 2007 marathon expected the worst. Sensational news broadcasts even suggested that the marathon would be canceled or postponed - never an option to race organizers, but a rumour that became pervasive as race day approached. In pre-race interviews, all of the runners said the same thing: due to the excessive wind, they would run conservatively and stay with a pack until the final miles of the race. If most of the runners were to follow this strategy, that might mean that more than ever there would be a huge group of runners together near the end - and that without a fast inital pace to break some of the runners, there might be a number who would be fresh at the end and could hope for a surprise victory. Perhaps the wind would punish the largest runners, and thereby favor the smaller runners - this was a race requiring a new strategy, one not often experienced by the elite runners.
With forecasts still suggesting a 30 mile per hour headwind and gusts up to 50 mph, the main pack started slowly, but with a surprise. From the beginning, two runners from the same team and with relatively high bib numbers - 42 and 54 - took the lead. In the next miles, these two, Josephat Ongeri leading and Jared Nyamboki following, opened and continued to extend a lead. In the easier first half of the Boston Marathon, Ongeri and Nyamboki were running at a pace that would bring them home in just under 2:10 - a typical time for Boston. Meanwhile, the rest of the field was running at a pace that would have them finishing closer to 2:18.
Watching Ongeri and Nyamboki, we thought we saw a strategy reminiscent of cycling - and indeed speaking with some other runners we began to hear that bicycle racing strategy was beginning to affect running strategy (more on that later). As we've often seen in professional cycling (think Tour de France) - two lesser-known and lesser athletes were taking advantage of a slow main pack with one of the athletes doing the initial work to block the wind in the breakaway. We knew these two runners - Ongeri had won the 2006 Detroit Marathon in 2:18 and Nyamboki had been close to achieving marathon finishes in the 2:14 range - on a normal day they would have no chance of winning the Boston Marathon, but working together on a day where the rest of the pack was running conservatively, anything could be possible. Or, was it just another type of ploy (also seen in bicycle racing) - go out early, run in the front and get lots of TV coverage - we really couldn't be sure, but we weren't ready to write these two off.
Two minutes behind the two leaders, the main pack was running so slowly that nearly 50 people remained inside of it. Runners expecting to finish in 2:20+ realized that it would be easier for them to push a bit harder than usual and take advantage of the large wind barrier than to run alone in the wind and so the pack held runners with personal bests from 2:07 to 2:27 - all knowing this was the best place to be. And it was slow.... Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot would tell us after the race that when he looked at his watch at the halfway point - 1:08:46 for the main pack - he commented to himself: "wow, we're going to run a 2:20 marathon..." [note: compare that to his 2:07:14 finish the year before]
Not liking the slow pace, two Americans decided to make the next move. At 20K, Peter Gilmore - the favorite for top American - spoke to Jason Lehmkuhle and the two agreed the pace was slow. As agreed and hoping not to draw attention, Lehmkuhle snuck away from the pack first, followed 30 seconds later by Peter Gilmore. The Kenyans and the remaining pack did not move and let the Americans go. And soon Gilmore and Lehmkuhle were free and opening a lead of 20 seconds. With a 2:12:46 PR at Boston in 2006, Gilmore could conceivably continue on to a win if the remaining pack did not react.
But seeing another two runners break from the pack, and perhaps knowing that Gilmore was a strong runner, the Kenyans in the main pack had a discussion and decided to reel back in the two Americans. Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot leads this group and finally the large pack begins to break apart somewhat as the group moves to catch Gilmore and Lehmkuhle. Gilmore told us after the race that at this point he was occasionally looking over his shoulder and noted that the main pack was catching him and Lehmkuhle - his decision then was to jog in place (okay, not quite) and let it happen for two reasons: i) let the Kenyans think that it was really easy to catch him and to give the impression he might be tiring and ii) to use the 20 seconds it would take for the pack to catch him as a rest time to let him get his heartrate back down and let him be fresh when it was time to rejoin the pack. And this strategy came from where? According to Gilmore: "I watched the Tour de France almost every day in the Summer and when someone is about to get caught by the peloton they slow down, sit up, eat some food, and rest before being recaught." [Yes, you heard it hear first on MarathonGuide.com - apparently Lance Armstrong is, indeed, affecting the marathon community].
When the lead pack reformed just after the halfway mark, it was then sixteen runners deep. Finally, the 2:20 marathoners are shed - but, as mentioned, at 1:08:46, the pace was nothing to tire the fast men who remained in it. In the pack remained Stephen Biwott, Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot, Philip Manyim, Stanley Leleito, James Koskei, Stephen Kiogora, Ruggero Pertile, Robert Chebororer, Samuel Ndereba, Peter Gilmore, Jason Lehmkuhle, Benjamin Maiyo, Teferi Wodajo, James Kwambai and a couple of others. We also note that at the halfway point, the lead held by Ongeri and Nyamboki was, for the first time beginning to slim.
At mile 16, we note that Ongeri, who at this point was probably holding Nyamboki back, has fallen off the pace. Nyamboki would hold the lead for another mile until the main pack would pass him - an exciting footnote to the 2007 Boston Marathon that will soon be forgotten, but.... we do wonder whether this was a real attempt at a victory or was simply a marketing ploy - and whether a slightly stronger runner with just a bit more support couldn't have won this Boston Marathon in a most interesting and surprising fashion.
Through heartbreak hill and mile 21, the pack of approximately 16 remained together, and finally it was Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot who initiated a move. With the faster pace, the field becomes strung out with initially seven men remaining. Cheruiyot, Kwambai, Kiogora, Koskei, Maiyo, Wodajo and Manyim - six of these seven would eventually finish as the first six. Strung out behind remained Ruggero Pertile, Samuel Ndereba and Peter Gilmore, but these are not to be part of the top finishers.
At mile 22 (1:53:58), James Kwambai makes a move and only Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot goes with him and also seems to dominate the younter Kenyan. At 40K, the two are running side by side - the two looking at each other from time to time. But all know that it is Cheruiyot who is the strongest and most seasoned.
The finish provides the slowest Boston Marathon results since 1977. Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot becomes a three-time winner of the Boston Marathon and successfully defends his title - winning in 2:14:33. Perhaps most significantly, with his third win in three races at the 2006 Boston Marathon, 2006 Chicago Marathon and 2007 Boston Marathon, Kipkoech Cheruiyot is virtually guaranteed an additional $500,000 bonus for being the champion of the inaugural World Marathon Majors Series.
The final results:
Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot 2:14:13
James Kwambai 2:14:33
Stephen Kiogora 2:14:47
James Koskei 2:15:05
Teferi Wodajo 2:15:06
Benjamin Maiyo 2:16:04
Ruggero Pertile 2:16:08
Peter Gilmore 2:16:41
Samuel Ndereba 2:17:04
Robert Cheboror 2:18:07