There is closing speed. And then there is how Rita Jeptoo finished last year’s Boston Marathon.
On her way to a third Boston title, Jeptoo covered the final 3.2 miles in 15 minutes, 56 seconds, including a 4:48 split for Mile 24. Men’s champion Meb Keflezighi covered the same stretch on the same day in 15:49. Let that sink in. Or not.
In the immediate aftermath of the 2014 race, the splits Jeptoo posted shocked and rattled many elite female marathoners. They talked about Jeptoo and her course-record 2:18:57 in awestruck tones. The word unbeatable was uttered more than once. Now, one year and two positive drug tests (“A” and “B” samples) later, her competitors see Jeptoo’s stunning final miles as a red flag, a chemically assisted performance, a first indicator of the doping scandal to come.
“Looking back, I feel very naïve now,” said Amy Hastings Cragg. “One of her last miles was 4:48, something insane. At the time, I was like, ‘Whoa, my mind is blown. That’s so crazy. Amazing.’ Looking back, I’m like, ‘I was an idiot. That’s impossible.’ That’s actually not possible for a woman to do at the end of a marathon. So, that’s very frustrating.”
It’s frustrating because female elites believe Jeptoo’s two-year suspension from competition doesn’t go far enough, because a positive test for the blood-booster EPO in September 2014 can not void the Boston course record set five months earlier.
Shalane Flanagan would like lifetime bans for Jeptoo and others caught doping. Also, she sees last year’s runner-up, Buzunesh Deba (2:19:59), as the true Boston Marathon women’s course record-holder. Desiree Davila Linden said she has “put an asterisk” on the Jeptoo mark. She knows it’s a tricky situation because there are no positive tests to back up strong suspicions that Jeptoo cheated her way to the Boston record or earlier Boston titles.
“You’ve got to go by the rule book and understand how the process works,” said Linden. “But the improvements she makes from cheating stick around for a long time. I guess you hope that someone can come in soon and do it the right way and erase that record for good.”
Flanagan sometimes reviews how she raced and finished the Boston Marathon in 2013 and 2014 and imagines how it would have been different without Jeptoo in the field. If Jeptoo doped before the 2013 race, then Flanagan should move up from fourth to third place in the official results. More than that, Flanagan saw Jeptoo’s strong closing speed for the first time in 2013 and planned accordingly for 2014. Flanagan sped through the early miles of last year’s race, notching a 1:09:27 half marathon, because of Jeptoo.
“I thought, ‘There’s no way I can let it come down to a really fast finish,’ ” said Flanagan. “I can’t have Jeptoo near me in the last 5 miles. When I come off Heartbreak, I’ve got to have a lead. I’ve got to try to get her before we get there because I can’t compete with that finish. So, that’s why I prepared the way I did last year.”
Flanagan isn’t the only elite female marathon runner who trained and strategized to beat Jeptoo. Given the way Jeptoo dominated the sport in 2013 and 2014 with wins at Boston and Chicago, her cheating created a massive ripple effect. Cragg seemed to speak for all clean elite female marathoners when she said, “You get very bitter when you start thinking about it too much . . . You can’t beat these people who are on drugs.”
But the fact that the testing system caught Jeptoo led some to see a positive side to the situation.
“It’s not a culture where you can get away with that,” said Linden. “It’s not a sport where the only way you can compete is if you’re cheating or you’re doping. It’s frustrating when somebody gets caught. You’re also happy and excited because it’s keeping the sport clean and you see the outrage and you think, ‘I’m not alone in feeling like this.’ ”
Talking about how fast times and awe-inspiring closing speed thrill marathon runners and fans alike, Linden added, “You want to have that awe and shock at what the human body can do. But now it’s become, ‘That’s unbelievable,’ and it automatically raises a question mark. It’s nice when those [fast finishes by runners who test positive for doping] get flushed out, but it does take away from the genuine excitement of the moment. And those moments should be special when done right.”Shira Springer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ShiraSpringer.