Geoffrey Mutai has run 26 miles faster than any man on earth ever has. He is the only man to set course records at Boston and New York in the same year. And yet he may have to win another laurel wreath here in Monday’s 116th Marathon to earn a place on Kenya’s team for this summer’s Olympics in London.
“If I win, it will be important for me,’’ said Mutai, who established a world-best 2 hours, 3 minutes, and 2 seconds on the hilly jaunt from Hopkinton to Copley Square last year.
Despite his cosmic credentials, the 30-year-old from Eldoret is only one of half a dozen men under consideration for the three entries. Depending on how Sunday’s marathon in Rotterdam and next Sunday’s in London turn out, the Kenyans could leave behind both the world record-holder and the world champion.
So deep is the country’s marathon pool (last year’s global top 20 all were Kenyans) that the federation could send 90 different three-man combinations to the Games, all of whom have met the Olympic “A’’ qualifying standard of 2:15.
“To get three out of 272 is not easy, I can tell you,’’ said Athletics Kenya chairman Isaiah Kiplagat, who is in town for the race.
Every other distance-running country would love to have that dilemma.
“Those guys are insanely deep,’’ said Ryan Hall, the unofficial American record-holder whose best certified time last year (2:08:04) put him behind 38 Kenyans. “They’re going to have guys watching the Olympic marathon at home that other countries would love to have on their team.’’
Hall already has qualified for London, along with Meb Keflezighi and Abdi Abdirahman, who were the top three finishers at January’s US trials in Houston. The Kenyans essentially have their trials every weekend. Of the 34 elite international marathons sanctioned last year by the international track and field federation, Kenyans claimed 26, and only Mutai, Wilson Chebet, and Wilson Kipsang won more than one.
Their macadam monopoly has made casual observers yawn, and they understand that.
“Kenyans, Kenyans, Kenyans,’’ nodded Kiplagat. “Every time a Kenyan.’’
Kenyans not only won all five of last year’s World Marathon Majors (Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago, New York), they also set course records in each, and Abel Kirui won the world title for the second time. So far this year, they’ve won six of nine international marathons and are favored to take the daily double in Rotterdam and Paris Sunday with Moses Mosop (last year’s Boston runner-up) and Benjamin Kiptoo.
But their planetary dominance has only increased the pressure on them to win the Olympic gold medal in London. Until Sammy Wanjiru, who died last year after falling from a balcony at home, did it in Beijing, Kenya had never won the one race whose champion everyone remembers.
“It is very important to us to win,’’ said Kiplagat. “We want to prove that it was not just a fluke. It was real.’’
The Kenyans, who were content to dominate cross-country and the steeplechase, didn’t care much about the marathon until Patrick Lynch, John Hancock’s soft-spoken pied piper, persuaded Ibraham Hussein to take the line in Hopkinton in 1988. Hussein outkicked Tanzania’s Juma Ikangaa by one second, beginning a hardtop hegemony that has produced 19 champions and four course records.
“From there,’’ Kiplagat said, “Kenya became a marathon country.’’
In the last quarter-century, the Kenyan marathoners have won 59 WMM crowns, collected a cargo load of cash, and created a problem for the rest of the country’s distance-running program.
“We are losing a lot of track athletes to the marathon,’’ said Kiplagat, who points out that the Kenyans haven’t won the 10,000 meters at the Olympics since 1968. “Where our athletes have gone into the 5,000 and 10,000 meters, they only think of going to the marathon because that’s where the money is.’’
In a country where the per capita income is $1,600, a man can set himself up for life with one triumph in a 26-miler, which has made for dozens of one-hit wonders.
“They win, and then you never see them again,’’ observed Mutai, who won $225,000 in prize money and bonuses in Boston and another $200,000 in New York. Until Wanjiru’s breakthrough in Beijing, the Kenyans had the reputation of being more interested in a six-figure payday than a five-ringed gold medal.
“They wanted to win the jackpot,’’ Kiplagat said.
That may have changed, however. Winning at Olympus now is considered something of a patriotic duty. The world beyond Nairobi probably can’t name any of the last seven steeplechase champions at the Games (all Kenyans), but everyone remembers Abebe Bikila, the barefoot Ethiopian imperial guard who triumphed in the dark in Rome in 1960.
“It adds to your name,’’ said Kiplagat. “What are you going to remember after you retire?’’
If the Kenyans can win in London - or even better, sweep the medals - they will have validated their week-in, week-out primacy. Nobody doubts that they have the firepower.
The six men under consideration are a Murderer’s Row of pavement-pounders. Kirui has won consecutive global titles. Makau holds the world mark of 2:03:38. Emmanuel Mutai set the course mark in London, Mosop in Chicago. Wilson Kipsang ran 2:03:42 in Frankfurt, the second-fastest ever on a certified layout.
But Mutai’s credentials are unmatched. Not only did he set course records on the two toughest major courses (taking down Tesfaye Jifar’s decade-old mark in the Apple), he did it without the benefit of pace-setters. That is a crucial distinction in choosing a team for Olympus, where rabbits are banned.
“He’s No. 1 in the world, I would say,’’ reckoned Bill Rodgers, who competed in the 1976 Games and won four crowns each in Boston and New York. “If he wasn’t selected, I would be dumbfounded and fall on the floor.’’
Nobody expects Mutai to set another course record Monday, not on what could be a scorching day that approaches the “Run for the Hoses’’ in 1976. Even repeating will be a challenge against a field that includes former New York titlist and returning medalist Gebre Gebremariam and Chebet, a speed racer who won both Rotterdam and Amsterdam last year.
“Even without Mosop, maybe it will be another one,’’ said Mutai. “You cannot say I will win this race because Mosop is not there. To return again to win is not easy.’’
Since 1995, only Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot, who won three straight from 2006-08, has retained his crown here, and Kiplagat says that won’t be necessary for Mutai to make the team.
“It is not important for him to win,’’ the chairman said. “We want just to see how he runs.’’
But by the time they fire the starting gun, Mosop may already have set a world record on Rotterdam’s ironing board. Next Sunday, the other four Olympic contenders could bust Big Ben.
That’s why Mutai is happy that Kiplagat is on this side of the Atlantic.
“I would like for him to follow us to watch the course himself,’’ the champ said.
Even better if the chairman would lace up and tag along through Hell’s Alley, Heartbreak Hill, and the Haunted Mile, and past the Cemetery of Lost Hope. They didn’t get those names by accident.
John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.