Coming down Boylston Street, Rita Jeptoo had time to pump her right fist, acknowledging the crowd. Jeptoo crossed in 2:26:25 for her second Boston Marathon title, winning a tactical race that started slow and closed incredibly fast. Jeptoo also won in 2006. Meseret Hailu finished second in 2:26:58. It was a marked contrast for the last two years when two seconds separated the women’s champion and runner-up.
Defending champion Sharon Cherop placed third in 2:27:01. In her Boston Marathon debut, an emotional Shalane Flanagan finished fourth in 2:27:08. The runner from Marblehead was considered one of the favorites.
Heading into Kenmore Square, Jeptoo, of Kenya, distanced herself from the other contenders — Hailu, Cherop, and Flanagan. She looked incredibly strong pushing through the final miles, continuing to pull away through Back Bay. Her patience and Boston experience paid off. And she didn’t look all that bothered by chasing down Portugal’s Ana Dulce Felix in the late stages of the race.
The elite women departed Hopkinton in perfect marathon weather under partly cloudy skies with temperatures in the mid-40’s. A slow start prompted a handful of runners to push the pace slightly, but not too much with the leader hitting the 5K mark in a relatively pedestrian 18:22. As the women’s field headed ran through the earliest miles, the top contenders, including Flanagan, Goucher, Jeptoo and Cherop were content to stay about 100 meters behind.
Still, that was the first good sign for Flanagan. While her coach Jerry Schumacher knew Flanagan could handle any style race, a slow-starting, tactical affair favored the runner from Marblehead. As the 10,000 meter bronze medalist in the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the American record holder in the event, Flanagan has the natural speed for a strong finish. And she was mentally prepared from a grueling final 10K as the race moved up and over Heartbreak Hill.
At the 10K mark, the chase pack cut the distance to the leaders in half. With her her blond ponytail and patriotic red, white and blue uniform, Flanagan was visible in the distance over the shoulders of the leaders. She ran near the front of the chase pack as solidified gained ground through Natick and Wellesley. The favorites in the chase pack made a calculated decision to let Columbia’s Yolanda Caballero go, figuring they would catch her later. Caballero passed the half marathon mark in 1:14:02 Caballero and had a 31-second lead on the chase pack.
Not long after, Felix decided to track down Caballero along. Felix caught Caballero in Newton Lower Falls, running through Hell’s Alley. Crossing the 128 overpass, Felix made a strong move and dropped Caballero. As Felix worked her way through Newton, she significantly increased her lead on the rest of the field. By the 30K mark, she held more than a minute advantage. And it was easy to wonder if the chase pack had let Felix get too far ahead. Clearly, as Flanagan, Goucher and company moved through the Newton Hills, the time for patience was over.
It certainly didn’t seem smart to let Felix go. While she didn’t have the most impressive credentials, she is still a quality 10,000-meter run with speed that might come into play late.
But going up Heartbreak Hill, Felix looked pained and appeared to struggle. Her stride looked more ragged than it had as she built her lead. After she crested the hill, she took a couple long looks behind, searching for the other women in the race. Since they were almost out of sight, Felix seemed to disbelieve the view behind her. At the 35-k mark, the chase pack trailed Felix by 1:06.
As she moved from Newton to Brookline, Felix looked over her shoulder more and more frequently, searching in vain for the chase pack or even another challenger. And the chase pack was coming. Coming out of Cleveland Circle, Jeptoo, Hailu, Cherop, and Flanagan pursued Felix in earnest. Between miles 23 and 24, Felix didn’t need to look back any more as the chase pack led by Jeptoo reeled in the runner from Portugal. As the group passed Felix, Flanagan was a few seconds behind the leaders.
Now, with a little more than 2 miles remaining, the race for the women’s Boston Marathon title began in earnest.
Shira Springer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.