Previews15 Apr 2017

Defending champions Berhanu and Baysa ready for Boston battle


Lemi Berhanu Hayle after winning the 2016 Boston Marathon (© Getty Images)

The 121st running of the Boston Marathon on Monday (17) will start in the outer-suburban town of Hopkinton and stream downhill through six other towns before arriving at the finish line for the IAAF Gold Label Road Race.

But for a race standing on such lengthy history, there’s little in the history of the men coming to Hopkinton on Monday morning that makes an easy favourite evident.

Defending champion Lemi Berhanu Hayle returns to Boston, at age 22 still among the youngest in the field, with two more marathons under his belt. After his 2016 victory in a war of attrition with two-time Boston champion Lelisa Desisa, Hayle was selected to represent Ethiopia in the marathon at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, where he finished 13th. He rebounded to win the Xiamen Marathon on 2 January in a relatively pedestrian 2:08:27, suggesting that even with a PB of 2:04:33 (run in January 2016 in Dubai) Hayle’s eye is on victory and not on the clock.

Though Desisa is not back for 2017, two other past Boston champions are in the field. Wesley Korir, the Kenyan MP who won in 2012, has returned; Korir was the survivor in a sweltering year where many faster runners faltered, and boasts a PB of 2:06:13 from that year’s Chicago Marathon.

Meb Keflezighi, who won an emotional 2014 victory with his PB of 2:08:37, is back for another tilt as well. Keflezighi won Olympic silver in 2004 and was champion at the New York City Marathon in 2009, making him one of a small club to have won both in Boston and New York. Approaching his 42nd birthday (5 May), it’s hard to see a route to victory for Keflezighi, but the same was true in 2014 and 2009; it’s hard to count Keflezighi out for sure as long as he’s wearing his racing flats.

Both of Keflezighi’s teammates from the USA’s 2016 Rio Olympic marathon team, Galen Rupp and Jared Ward, are in Boston, and Rupp in particular is attracting plenty of attention. Like Keflezighi, Rupp has an Olympic medal in the marathon, his bronze from Rio; he also has a 10,000m silver from 2012. In fact, when it comes to placing high in championship-style races, Rupp may be the class of the field; Keflezighi is the only other one with an Olympic medal, and nobody else has two. Rupp has battled plantar fasciitis issues this spring, but ran a solid tune-up half-marathon (1:01:59) in Prague recently.

Any of these men may be sideshows next to the two fastest men in the field, Emmanuel Mutai and Patrick Makau. With respective PBs of 2:03:13 and 2:03:38, Mutai and Makau are ranked among the 10 fastest runners in history, but their times are still a few seconds short of Geoffrey Mutai’s course record of 2:03:02. With a point-to-point course and an overall drop of 140 metres from start to finish, marks run in Boston are sensitive to weather conditions and aren’t eligible for record consideration.

And the weather may turn out to be a factor on Monday, with temperatures predicted to be between 15-20C and a wind of up to 4m/s from the west. While a little warm, “tailwind years” are the ones Boston runners dream of; the course records run in 1994’s tailwind year lasted more than a decade.

As with the men, the defending women’s champion returns this year, with Atsede Baysa wearing bib F1. A two-time Chicago Marathon winner as well, Baysa finished sixth in Chicago last year in her only other race since winning in Boston.

She’ll face two other past champions. Caroline Rotich, the 2015 winner, didn’t finish in 2016 and hasn’t run a marathon since, but experience in Boston is not to be underestimated. More dangerous but also more mercurial is Buzunesh Deba, two-time runner-up in New York and course record-holder here in Boston with a 2:19:59 from 2014. Deba was third in 2015 and seventh in 2016, but didn’t finish in New York either year; her most recent result is a third place from Honolulu last December, in 2:35:34.

Kenya’s 2014 world half-marathon champion Gladys Cherono, owner of a 2:19:25 PB from her 2015 Berlin victory, is the fastest in the field, but has only two previous marathons on her resume, and none since 2015. She did, however, set a half marathon PB of 1:06:07 last year and recently won the Rome-Ostia Half Marathon in 1:07:01.

Edna Kiplagat, then, wearing F3, may have the best all-around resume. Kiplagat is a two-time world marathon champion (2011 and 2013) and has been a winner in London and New York (2014 and 2010, respectively). Her second-place finish in London five years ago gave her a PB of 2:19:50, with Cherono and Deba the second of the three sub-2:20 women in the field.

Finally, two-time Olympic marathoner for the USA Desiree Linden will be back to take another swing. Linden finished a close second here in 2011, in a PB of 2:22:38 which included a dead sprint down Boyleston Street. Linden was seventh in the Olympic marathon last year and fourth at the 2015 Boston Marathon, and is known for laying off the early pace and working through the pack in the later miles. Notably, Linden’s best run was the last tailwind year, in 2011.

Despite the overall elevation drop, Boston’s profile features a series of climbs starting at about 25km and continuing through about 33km. It usually punishes quick starters and rewards patient, steady runners like Linden, but if the weather and the wind is fair, all previous predictions go out the window.

The elite women will start at 9:32am local time (UTC-4), with the men following with the first wave of the mass start at 10:00am.

Parker Morse for the IAAF