It had been five years since one of their guys had snapped a tape in Copley Square, which by Kenyan calculation might as well have been a lifetime. Not since Ibrahim Hussein won the first of his country’s titles here in 1988 had the world’s dominant road running nation gone that long between victory laps on Boylston Street.
So on a summery day that sucked the spring out of the strides of its former Boston champions, Geoffrey Kirui hit the reset button, running away from Olympic medalist Galen Rupp over the final 3 miles in his Boston debut to produce Kenya’s 21st men’s title and complete the daily double after Edna Kiplagat’s women’s triumph.
“In my mind I was sure that one day I would win this race,” said the 24-year-old Kirui, after he’d bested Rupp by 21 seconds in 2 hours, 9 minutes, and 37 seconds to become the first man from his homeland to win since Wesley Korir in 2012.
After last year’s Ethiopian sweep, which kept Kenya off the podium for the first time since 1990, Kirui and his countrymen were out for redemption. But the hardtop landscape is becoming more diverse with the migration of track aces to the roads and the day when the Kenyans could treat this hilly ramble as their intramural championships is past.
Suguru Osako, making his 26-mile debut after running the 10,000 meters at last summer’s Olympics, finished third in Japan’s first podium finish since Toshihiko Seko won in 1987. And Rupp, in his first big-city marathon, led a string of six Americans in the top 10, the most since 1985, the last year before prize money was awarded.
“I had an incredible time out there,” said Rupp, who ran seven seconds faster here (2:09:58) than he while did winning bronze in Rio. “I heard so many great things about this race and it exceeded any expectations that I had.”
Going through the Newton hills, Rupp still had plenty of star-spangled company in the lead pack — Shadrack Biwott (who placed fourth), Abdi Abdirahman (sixth), Augustus Maiyo (seventh), Luke Puskedra (ninth), and Jared Ward (10th). It was the Kenyans and Ethiopians who’d wilted as the mercury headed toward 80 degrees and the uphills arrived.
Emmanuel Mutai, the former London champ who pushed the pace past the midway point, faded and finished 18th. Lemi Berhanu Hayle, who was bidding to become the first champion to repeat since Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot in 2008, vanished after 18 miles. By the time they were ascending Heartbreak Hill, the leaders were down to Kirui and Rupp. Me and my shadow. “We are two people,” said Kirui. “This guy and me.”
Kirui wasn’t sure of Rupp’s name (“This man from USA”) but he knew that he had won Olympic medals both on the track and road. He also knew that there was no other Kenyan in contention to step up if he faltered down the stretch.
Kirui only had finished two other marathons, both of them Dutch pancakes in Rotterdam and Amsterdam. But history had taught him about the local topography. “All Kenyans training for the Boston Marathon know that it is up and down,” he said. “They know there are hills and are well prepared for it.”
Kirui’s preparation was sufficiently solid that he reckoned he could be among the leaders. “I knew I was going to have to face my colleagues who have run many times here,” he said. “I was not aware at the time I was going to win, but I knew that I would challenge some of the champions who have been competing here.”
Once they were gone it was one Boston newbie against another. After Kirui and Rupp went through the “Haunted Mile” after the Heartbreak downslope, a reprise of the classic 1982 Duel in the Sun between Rupp’s coach Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley appeared to be in the offing.
Kirui, who’d been the African junior champion and a world junior medalist in the 10,000, had significant track cred. But he sensed that he was unlikely to outkick “my friend from USA” along the Brookline flats, particularly with the sidewalks crammed with Patriots Day celebrants hoping to see the first US-born men’s victor since Greg Meyer in 1983.
So as they approached Coolidge Corner along Beacon Street, Kirui decided that it was time to check fuel levels. “I try to push a little bit,” he said. “I was testing myself. I see my friend following me.”
When Rupp didn’t drop, Kirui mashed the accelerator and threw in a jaw-dropping 4:28 mile that was by far the fastest of the day and opened a 12-second gap. Once the Kenyan reached Kenmore Square it seemed that only a monster pothole would deny him but Rupp, who was hurting mightily, gamely tried to regain contact. “Once he broke away I just tried to stay as close as I could,” he said. “You always hold on to that hope that you can pick it up or he might die a little bit.”
But Kirui, who looked as if he were out for a holiday jog, wouldn’t be caught. “He ran a heck of a race and I just didn’t have it over those last 3 or 4 miles,” conceded Rupp. “Eventually I just couldn’t stay up with him.”
Thus did the Empire strike back and all was nifty again back in Nairobi. But with Wilson Chebet (in fifth) the only other Kenyan among the top dozen, it wasn’t their customary parade. The Rising Sun is above the horizon again and the home team is back in numbers. “It’s awesome to see American distance running on the upswing,” said Rupp, “and being competitive in these big races.”