The procession of Cheruiyots, Mutais, and Korirs has been so perennial and predictable that global marathoning has been bordering on Kenyan fatigue. “Kenyans, Kenyans, Kenyans,” their federation chairman Isaiah Kiplagat acknowledged last year as his countrymen were poised to sweep the Boston podium yet again. “Every time a Kenyan.”
The planet’s hardtop kings have won 19 of the last 22 Patriots Day jaunts and are favored to prevail again on Monday when defending champion Wesley Korir and former champion Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot take the line in Hopkinton against a quintet of Ethiopian pursuers. The Kenyans have won nine of the last 10 Chicago races, eight of the last nine in London, and the last three in Berlin. The only major they haven’t dominated is New York, where the runners from different countries have won the last four titles, including US racer Meb Keflezighi in 2009.
“Our strategy is to have an Olympic-style field,” says New York race director Mary Wittenberg. “We try to get the best from all of the different countries. For Kenyans, we’ll always have more than three but we have more from other countries than probably any other race.”
Yet while the parade of Kenyan crowned heads may have produced so-what-else-is-new? shrugs from spectators and the media elsewhere, there’s no evidence of resentment, even from their rivals. “We don’t mind when the Kenyans win,” insists Ethiopia’s Gebre Gebremariam, who’ll be chasing them again here.
Road racing is the simplest of sports. Fire the gun, start the clock, and the first one to break the tape wins. Ecclesiastes and Rosie Ruiz notwithstanding, the race is almost always to the swift and the swiftest, much more often than not, are the Kenyans.
“It’s part of our tradition and culture here — you do want to recruit the fastest athletes,” says Carey Pinkowski, executive race director of the Chicago Marathon, where the ironing-board course is built for world records. “If you want to go fast, you want to recruit Kenyans.”
If the Ethiopians are faster — and they’re on the verge of overtaking their neighbors — race directors will be happy to recruit them as did Boston, which has five in the field this year, including 2009 champion Deriba Merga, equaling the number of Kenyans. For most of the past quarter-century, the world’s most fabled footrace generally has followed the clock when assembling its elite fields. “I feel it’s a testament to Boston that you’ve seen Kenyan dominance,” says Wittenberg. “Boston is held in such high esteem in Kenya that you’re getting the best of the best.”
Were there an American or two in the lead pack — all three Olympians have scratched — the buzz would be electric, as it was in 2006 when Keflezighi, Brian Sell, and Alan Culpepper finished 3-4-5. “When we were here in 2011, Ryan Hall leads the race and everyone was cheering him,” recalls Gebremariam. “People want that, even the runners. It is something exciting for the people if some new people come.”
What likely contributes to Kenyan fatigue is not that there are so many of them but that so many of them are one-hit wonders who win the laurel wreath, collect the check and move on. “The Kenyans have been dominant but there’s not a lot of consistency,” observes Keflezighi. “You win, but why not stick with it?”
The massive monetary rewards have made it unnecessary for them to compete for more than a few years and the extraordinary depth of the Kenyan pool (11 of them ran faster than 2 hours and 6 minutes last year) have made it difficult to stay at the top. “It is so competitive,” says Pinkowski. “If you look at the times and how deep it’s gotten, there’s a great deal of attrition. There was a handful 20 years ago. Now, there are 100 who are competitive.”
Like golf and tennis, marathoning thrives when there are marquee names chasing multiple titles. Ibrahim Hussein, the first Kenyan victor here in 1988, won three Boston crowns as did Cosmas Ndeti. Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot claimed four as did countrywoman Catherine “The Great” Ndereba. But there hasn’t been a repeat men’s champion here since 2008.
“People are doing well that are unfamiliar to the public,” says Boston Athletic Association executive director Tom Grilk. “Who are these people? So a thrust for us here and the World Marathon Majors group is to personalize some of these terrific athletes wherever they may happen to be from. How do you make them more recognizable as athletes and as human beings rather than just somebody that I never heard of who ran fast in a marathon?”
Given the Kenyans’ nature, which is soft-spoken, modest, and deferential to their teammates, whom they commonly refer to as “my colleagues,” they’re generally uncomfortable in the spotlight. “One gets the sense that there is a group mentality at work,” muses Grilk, “and that people are willing to celebrate the accomplishments of others.”
As long as a Kenyan wins, their colleagues and countrymen back home are happy. So far this year they’ve taken six of the 10 IAAF-label marathons, from Paris to Mumbai to Tokyo, where they swept the podium at the newest World Marathon Major. As long as they’re doing that, the Cheruiyots and Mutais and Korirs will be welcome anywhere. “People in Chicago want to see fast running,” says Pinkowski. “They’re intrigued by the Kenyans and Ethiopians. They know they’re going to prepare and deliver great racing.”
No Chicago race and few anywhere were better than the 2010 duel between Olympic champion Sammy Wanjiru and Ethiopian rival Tsegaye Kebede. “Sammy and Seg came ripping up Michigan Avenue for the last 3 miles,” says Pinkowski. “Those guys come and run hard no matter what.”
The most memorable showdown in Boston came in 1982, when Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley duked it out from the Newton hills to the finish in “The Duel in the Sun” that provokes conversation more than three decades later. But that was before prize money lured the Africans to Heartbreak Hill and changed the sport of the Kelleys forever.
“Some of us do remember an era when the Boston winner was named Bill or Alberto,” says Amby Burfoot, who outran four Americans, three Mexicans, a Finn, and a Briton when he won here in 1968. “That was a wonderful, wonderful time. But we don’t have a way of turning the clock back to that time.”
Inside the numbers of Kenya’s dominance