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The 113th Running of the Boston Marathon - The Men's Race
by Sharon Ekstrom
The 113th Boston Marathon was highlighted by surprises in the men's race from the start to an unexpected finish. The race was expected to feature the defending champion in a duel against the American favorite - but instead both were defeated by an Ethiopian in his own story of personal redemption. The 2009 edition of the race held tales of courage and great displays of running talent. We've watched the Boston Marathon for years and expected the same race: a conservative start/ respect for the seeming ease of the early downhills, runners keying off the past champion, and then a break toward the end of the hills. What unfolded was not the same Boston Marathon we might have expected as the players did not follow their scripted roles.
Getty Images Sport / Jim Rogash
An Unusually Fast Start - Ryan Hall!
Expectations for American success were high as American Ryan Hall started the Boston Marathon. The race had not had an American winner since Greg Meyer's victory in 1983 and many - ourselves included - believed that Hall could be the man to break that drought. Hall's win would be good for Hall, but also good for the sport as many have hoped that Hall's successes will inspire a new generation of young American marathoners and this would be a great success. Beyond the ordinary hope of victory, Hall was carrying the weight of the sport in America on his shoulders.
At the start gun, Hall went flying, a risky move in his first Boston marathon. In the press room we were looking at some startline photos with Victah Sailer (the pre-eminent race photographer) and we were amazed to see Hall leaning over at such a pitch before the start - it looked like he was starting a 400meter race! We're not sure where Hall got the idea that the Boston Marathon should start at such a fevered pitch - perhaps it was his experience running the ultra speed-conscious London Marathon (or Beijing Olympics Marathon), or perhaps it was his success frontrunning at the USA Men's Olympic Trials Marathon - but whatever the case, Hall's start was not typical Boston marathoning. Hall's first four splits were unbelievable: 4:40, 4:42, 4:43, 4:44 (that's course and WORLD record pace, although admittedly downhill) and the 10K mark was hit in 29:28 - that's flying. Hall would frequently look back to gauge the reaction of his competition and see who was still with him. If the runner had been anyone other than Hall, we think that the others might have let him go - but a group of eleven others held on for the ride: Gashaw Asfaw (ETH), Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot (KEN), Tekeste Kebede (ETH), Deribe Merga (ETH), Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot (KEN), Solomon Molla (ETH), Daniel Rono (ETH), James Kosgei (KEN), Stephen Kiogora (KEN), Timothy Cherigat (KEN) and Evans Cheruiyot (KEN).
Daniel Rono - Working His Way Up
There were a number of runners in that pack who are worth mentioning, and each would have a different story of how they arrived at Boston. Many have seemed to be on the major marathon circuit forever or to have come straight from track stardom to try their hand at the biggest marathon they could find. Daniel Rono was different. He had taken four years to get to Boston, working his way up through the ranks of marathons and improving along the way. With remarkable consistency and continuous improvement, the Kenyan started marathoning by winning the 2005 Madrid Marathon in 2:12:29, continued to lower his PR with a 2:10:15 and then 2:09:35 at the 2006 and 2007 Toronto Waterfront Marathons, then ran a 2:06:58 at the 2008 Rotterdam Marathon before entering his first "Marathon Majors" race and earning third place at the 2008 ING New York City Marathon. With this background of advancing through increasingly difficult marathons and never finishing out of the top three in any of his seven career marathons - Rono seemed ready for Boston and not typical of the Boston Marathon runner profile.
Deribe Merga - A History of Disappointment
Another man in the pack was Deribe Merga. Merga, a training partner of Haile Gebrselassie and one of its greatest track stars, had entered the 2006 Boston Marathon as his debut. Merga made a break to push the pace at Boston in 2006 - bringing along Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot (KEN) who would continue to a course record as Merga eventually dropped out before 40K. Merga suffered a similar fate at the 2008 Beijing Olympics Marathon where he remained one of five in a fast lead pack before orchestrating his own break bringing along only Sammy Wanjiru (KEN) who would continue on to win in an Olympic Record as Merga would slow to nearly a crawl on the track in the final yards to the finish line to be passed by a countryman and finish fourth - out of the medals. Although Merga had clocked an impressive 2:06:50 runner-up finish at the 2007 Fukuoka Marathon (behind Wanjiru!) and won the Chevron Houston Marathon in January 2009 in a course record 2:07:52, Merga felt that the big prize continued to elude him and that Boston might be his redemption. As he told this reporter before the race in broken English: "Big Race = Big Name."
The Move at 20K and Mile 17
Surprisingly - or perhaps not - Deribe Merga was the man who chose to push the pace again after 20K - 1 hour on the clock. Merga, with countryman Gashaw Asfaw who finished fourth in Boston in 2008, took control of the race. By mile 17 - into the first of the Newton Hills - Merga, with Daniel Rono (KEN) and Solomon Molla (KEN) had opened a lead on the others. Merga continued to push and eventually freed himself from all others by 30K. And Merga was running like a wild man. Perhaps it was the memories of past losses and the barely missed Olympic medal. Perhaps it was a remembrance of the 2006 Boston Marathon as he passed the point at which he dropped out of that race. Spectators wondered if Merga would crash and burn again... But whatever it was that was driving Merga kept him moving faster than anyone else in the field and his lead continued to grow almost to the end of the race.
Hall Falters, Recovers?
The American hero and hope, Ryan Hall, after leading the race faltered and fell back when Merga made his surge at mile 17. Hall seemed out of it and faded back to ninth position - presumably spent. By 30K, Hall was 30 seconds behind Merga and Rono, but then something happened and Hall started to move forward again. Working with Tekeste Kebede, Hall made up some time on the leaders and was within 18 seconds of Rono - then alone in second place - with 2K remaining in the race. Hall then picked up the pace even more and looked to want to charge down Rono, but there wasn't enough space left in this race and Hall took third place, less than a minute behind Merga and just eight seconds behind Rono.
The Finish, the Wrapup
The stories were not what we could have predicted: Merga wins, redeems himself by finally winning a major marathon, conquering a course that had previously conquered him, and winning for Ethiopia what he had so often seen taken by the Kenyan runners... Daniel Rono takes second place and continues the upward trajectory of his career - where will it go next?... Hall - still young at 26 - proved that he has the courage to become (or remain?) one of the great marathoners. We'll debate for some time whether Hall didn't think he was starting the London Marathon instead of Boston and whether the blistering starting pace - into the wind - didn't take too much out of the American hero.
And One Name Will become Two
We'll end by mentioning two of the other competitors: Robert K. Cheruiyot (now that there are two of them). The four-time champion Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot (RKC I) was confident in pre-race interviews, but was coming off a seven month layoff from thigh problems. We saw RKC I rubbing his leg by the fourteenth mile and looking uncomfortable. We'll recall from the narrative above that in 2006 RKC I continued on to a win while Merga dropped out, but on this day it would be the opposite as RKC I who had to drop out himself. And on the "people to watch in the future" list, we'll add Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot (RKC II). At 20 years old, and in his second marathon ever (the first was a win at the Frankfurt Marathon in 2:07:21), RKC II finished in fifth place at the Boston Marathon. If this 20-year old doesn't burn himself out, we'll be interested to see how he will do - and to see if he will do honor to his name and someday become the second "Robert K. Cheruiyot" to win the Boston Marathon.
Deribe Merga (ETH) - 2:08:42
Daniel Rono (KEN) - 2:09:32
Ryan Hall (USA) - 2:09:40
Tekeste Kebede (ETH) - 2:09:49
Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot (KEN) - 2:10:06
Gashaw Asfaw (ETH) - 2:10:44
Solomon Molla (ETH) - 2:12:02
Evans Cheruiyot (KEN) - 2:12:45
Stephen Kiogora (KEN) - 2:13:00
Timothy Cherigat (KEN) - 2:13:04