Everything aligned perfectly for the powerfully-built Ernst Van Dyk when he set the wheelchair marathon world record in 2004. Taking advantage of his familiarity with the course, Van Dyk finished in 1:18:27. It was the fourth of his record nine Boston Marathon titles.
For his record-setting success, Van Dyk credits luck ‘’with no flat tires,’’ warm weather that reminded him of his South African home, absence of a headwind, and competition from eventual runner-up Joel Jeannot of France. Being a Paralympic year, both Van Dyk and Frenchman Jeannot arrived in Boston in top shape. Van Dyk said he was ‘’in the best physical condition of my life.’’ Jeannot won would win gold in the 10,000-meter track race at the Athens Paralympics later that year.
‘’Every time I looked over my shoulder, I could see [Jeannot] in the distance and it felt like he was always getting closer,’’ said Van Dyk. ‘’By the time I got to the top of Heartbreak, I could no longer see him. Then, I did not have to race conservative anymore and I went as fast as I could for the next 4 or 5 kilometers. With 3 kilometers to go I knew I had it ... My advantage was I knew the course better than he did. He chased me good and hard.’’
With his obvious strength, the course suits Van Dyk. But he admits acknowledges the Newton hills always present a challenge, even when in world record shape.
‘’I’m not a good climber, being big and heavy,’’ said Van Dyk. ‘’Every year I know this is the part where I could win or lose the race. You can easily blow a three-minute lead in those hills if you paced yourself wrong or you are holding back too much.’’
Other aspects of the course make it particularly suitable for fast wheelchair times. If the wind hits wheelchair racers just right, they will speed along. They also encounter few momentum-sapping turns along the route. Another benefit. But because of the elevation drop, the course is no longer world-record eligible for wheelchair racers. Still, Van Dyk’s time in 2004 remains the fastest wheelchair marathon. And that surprises the South African, especially given the weather last year.
‘’We had really good conditions last year — better than we had in 2004 — and still my record did not fall,’’ said Van Dyk. ‘’I was not in great shape and [Australia’s] Kurt [Fearnley] and [Japan’s Masazumi] Soejima only got me at the start of the Newton hills. I expected them to catch me earlier but I guess they were also racing to beat me and did not think the record was a possibility. Soejima has the potential to break my record. As his confidence builds, he will get closer ... To me the fact that my Boston record still stands means the world. But before I retire, I would like to break it once more.’’