|The 110th Running of the Boston Marathon - The Men's Race
by John Elliott/Sharon Ekstrom
The 110th running of the Boston Marathon was arguably the best race in its history. Beside the question of who would win, the race featured a number of subplots and queries: With the largest (and strongest?) contingent, would the Kenyans regain the title after their 13-year streak was broken in 2005? Would the sentimental favorite, American Meb Keflezighi, running on the type of course that is his forte manage to notch his first marathon win? Would 2005 champion, youngster Hailu Negussie, prove that his 2005 upset was the start of a long successful career? And would Alan Culpepper - as top American and 4th place finisher in 2005 - show that the Americans were returning as a force at the Boston Marathon?
The answers were as exciting as the questions and the commentary below details what must be one of the most strategic, tactical, well-thought and memorable marathons in history. All of this amidst the backdrop of a day with the perfect weather for a marathon...
The Boston Marathon is known for a number of things: its peculiar start time - promptly at noon, and the expectation that the runners will begin the race conservatively and a large pack will exist for a large part of the race. The 2006 race started on time, as expected, but the second assumption proved false from the beginning.
As soon as the race began, John Yuda of moved to the front of the pack - immediately pushing the pace. With one marathon behind him (a 2:10:13 at the 2004 London Marathon), the 26 year-old Tanzanian was most likely a rabbit, but with a 6th place at the World Half-Marathon Championships no one could be sure. The rest of the runners stayed with Yuda as he led through the first ten miles, bringing the runners with him in what was a course record pace. By mile 7, the pack was down to 11 runners. By mile 8, Hailu Negussie, the defending champion, had already fallen off the pace. By mile 9, the pack was starting to string out. And by mile 10 a surge by Benjamin Maiyo shattered the pack - something that normally happens as the runners get to the hills - around mile 18.
By mile 11, the lead pack was down to three - with a secondary pack, still maintaining some contact of another three runners. This was not a typical Boston Marathon. And the small number of runners was not the product of a weak, but just the opposite. What made the situation more incredible was the pace of all six, by the halfway all six were more than two minutes ahead of Cosmas Ndeti's pace when he set the course record in 1994.
At the halfway point, as mentioned, were two packs: Leading the front pack was Benjamin Maiyo, a man who had finished second at the 2005 Chicago Marathon in 2:07:09 - not a man to be taken for granted. Behind and with Maiyo was Meb Keflezighi, the 2004 Athens Olympic Silver Medalist, a man who thrives on this sort of hilly course and certainly one of the favorites. Also in the lead pack was 25-year old Deriba Merga of Ethiopia - a rising star in the Ethiopian running firmament and a training partner of Haile Gebrselassie. Just a month before Boston, Merga had set a new course record, 60:44, at the Paris Half-Marathon and had served as rabbit at other marathons but had yet to run his own. In the following group, twelve seconds back, were three Kenyans: Timothy Cherigat, the 2004 Boston Champion; Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot, the 2003 Boston Champion; and John Korir who Running Times named the 2005 runner of the year, running his debut marathon.
The pace was blistering and the question arose: what was really happening? Was the front pack, led by Benjamin Maiyo, a Kenyan, just a ploy to force some runners to run faster than they should, to tire themselves out so that one of the Kenyans in the second pack could pick up the pieces? Was Maiyo a serious contender? We could tell that Meb was asking himself just those questions as he decided that he could not let Maiyo run away.
By Mile 16 (1:16:30), Maiyo has pushed his lead and is now a full 2:24 ahead of Cosmas Ndeti's record pace at that point in the Boston Marathon. Keflezighi and Merga have dropped back slightly and are seven seconds behind - the decision must have been that Maiyo should be let go or could not keep this pace. Could anyone? Behind, Cherigat has dropped off the pace and Kipkoech Cheruiyot has started to move forward.
By Mile 17 (1:21:24), Merga had dropped off - too much for the youngster in his debut marathon. Maiyo is maintaining and broadening his lead - still 2:24 up on Ndeti's course record pace - but a charging Cheruiyot has caught Keflezighi who seems to be responding. Next up are the Newton Hills - this race may take on a whole new tone.
Into the first hills, Maiyo has slowed and Cheruiyot has continued to move forward. By the 30K mark (1:29:31), Cheruiyot has caught Maiyo and the two are communicating. Keflizighi is falling back and should safely keep third place, but he will be out of the running for his first win. In 2006, the win will go to a Kenyan. And for the first time in years, rather than a pack of ten runners approaching the hills and beginning to plan a strategy, this race has been a race from the beginning...
Through mile 21 (1:41:21), Maiyo and Cheruiyot trade off on the work through the hills. Miles 20 and 21 are the slowest of the race - both 5:04, and the hills are ending. At mile 20+, Maiyo gestures Cheruiyot forward - to take a pull or to move ahead? - and Cheruiyot moves forward and soon moves completely away. After two 5:04 miles, Cheruiyot runs mile 22 in 4:41. Maiyo's leadership role has taken its toll and he will fade to hold second. The race is now between Cheruiyot and the phantom Cosmas Ndeti - with five miles to go, can Cheruiyot hold onto the 1:33 lead he has on Ndeti's course record pace?
Speaking to the press after the race, Cheruiyot told us that he was planning to attempt a course record. Cheruiyot, with experience at Boston, including a win in 2003 (2:10:11) a DNF in 2004 and 2:14:30 in 2005, knew the course and knew what to expect. Maiyo, running Boston for the first time was at a distinct disadvantage and could not have prepared enough for the hills. To add to Cheruiyot's strategy, he told us that he had discussed the race with two-time Boston Marathon winner Moses Tanui (2:09:15 in 1996 and 2:07:34 in 1998) and also with training partner Paul Tergat and had decided on a strategy. With a best Boston finish of 2:10:11 and a PR of 2:08:59 could this man legitimately attempt to break a 2:07:15 course record? Could he last another five miles?
Mile 25 was a turning point. Cheruiyot manages a 5:07 mile while the course record was set by Ndeti who put in a 4:45 mile at the same point and would follow it up with a 4:47 final mile. Cheruiyot will win the race against his 2006 competitors - that is assured - but the race against the 1994 Ndeti seems completely uncertain. At mile 25, Cheruiyot is a minute ahead of Maiyo, but just 35 seconds ahead of Ndeti - and Cheruiyot is slowing... And Ndeti is speeding up...
Cheruiyot's final mile is 5:18, Ndeti's final mile is 4:47. The race comes down to a single second. Cheruiyot finishes the race in 2:07:13, he wins the 2006 Boston Marathon AND sets a new course record. Benjamin Maiyo who pushed the pace in much of the race finishes in second place in 2:08:21. Meb Keflezighi, battling at the front for much for the race finishes third in 2:09:56, just three seconds off his personal best.
Beyond the top three, the secondary news is the success of the American contingent at Boston. Keflezighi, as mentioned, takes third place. Brian Sell, running his own race, passes Alan Culpepper in the final four hundred yards and finishes fourth in 2:10:55, a PR by more than three minutes. Culpepper, having stayed with the lead pack through the first ten miles, finished fifth in 2:11:02, commenting that he was surprised to see someone pass him that close to the finish. Included in the top ten are two other Americans: Peter Gilmore, seventh in 2:12:45 and Clint Verran, 2:14:12. That's five Americans in the top ten (and a total of eleven Americans in the top twenty) - in contrast, in 2005 there were two Americans in the top ten (six in the top twenty); and in 2004 there were no Americans in the top ten and just three in the top 20. Apparently, the Americans are back.