This race hadn’t been held in 30 months and never in autumn. Most of the top athletes hadn’t run 26 miles for money in a couple of years because of the pandemic. So why couldn’t an outlier snap the tape in Copley Square? Maybe even a couple of Americans?
For a good while on a balmy Monday morning, a star-spangled double seemed possible. Then the Kenyans decided that the 125th Boston Marathon would be an opportune time for a restoration and pulled off their first sweep here in four years.
Benson Kipruto, who limped in a blistered 10th here two years ago, sprinted away from more than a dozen companions on the Brookline flats to beat Ethiopian former champion Lemi Berhanu by 46 seconds in 2 hours, 9 minutes, and 51 seconds. And Diana Kipyokei, making her majors debut, did the same and held off former victor Edna Kiplagat by 24 seconds in 2:24:45 as the Kenyan women took the first four places here for the first time.
Kipyokei had been an accomplished half marathoner before switching to the full distance. After winning Istanbul last year in her second outing, she decided to move up to the big league, so she chose the place where so many of her fellow Kenyans had made their names.
“I just decided to come and try my luck this year,” Kipyokei said.
The pace in both races was so leisurely for so long that it seemed that anyone in the swollen lead packs might be able to slip away on a downhill or a curve and steal a laurel wreath and a $150,000 paycheck. So it was that CJ (as in Clayton Jordan) Albertson found himself ahead by more than two minutes midway along, with not an East African in sight behind him.
“I didn’t expect to be out there for that long by myself,” he said.
Albertson, who holds the world track record for 50 kilometers, is a legit marathoner who owns the world indoor record (yes, there is one) and finished seventh in last year’s Olympic trials. He could have been a useful “rabbit,” but Boston never has used paid pace-setters.
Still, Albertson went out so briskly on the downhill stretch from Hopkinton to Ashland that the leaders never realized he was in front.
Albertson figured that the pack would catch up to him by Framingham. But when he made the firehouse turn and headed into the Newton hills, he was as alone as Tarzan Brown had been in 1936.
It wasn’t until he approached Heartbreak that his pursuers, who’d been lollygagging at a 2:12 pace for much of the route, got close enough to discover that a stranger from Fresno was in fact the leader.
“I didn’t know somebody was ahead until we closed the gap,” said Kipruto.
When they did, they closed en masse on Albertson, who hung in stubbornly for 10th. Once the pack came off the hills, it became a track race among 14 guys, half of them Ethiopians.
At 35 kilometers, Kipruto decided to shake things up and see who could match his pace. None could. Ethiopia’s Lelisa Desisa, the reigning world champion and a two-time victor here, walked off the course with a mile to go.
“I made a massive move, I can say,” said Kipruto, who covered the next five kilometers in 14:05 and opened up 37 seconds of daylight. “I push to see if today was my day. And, thank God, it was.”
From Kenmore Square to the finish, he was bouncing and breezing. Kipruto had won in Prague this spring, but nobody outside of Central Europe and the Nandi Hills noticed. Winning here, no matter what time of year, means a global headline.
So it was, too, for Kipyokei, who unlike Kipruto knew who actually was leading heading into the hills. She was.
The women’s pace lagged too, with a pack of at least 15 staying together stubbornly, the leader changing at virtually every mile marker.
“No one wanted to lead,” said Nell Rojas. “Someone would come up, we’d go a little faster, then we’d slow down.”
Rojas, whose coach and father Ric was a Harvard distance star, had been a triathlete until she decided she didn’t want to buy a bike and train for the Ironman and went back to running. She’d made the top 10 in the Olympic marathon trials and reckoned that she’d be in the mix, hanging on to the back of the pack.
“Somehow I ended up leading [at 15 and 17 miles] — and I never lead,” marveled Rojas, who was the top American in sixth place.
Kipyokei decided finally that she was bored with all that dawdling and indecision.
“I saw the group was slowing down and I said to myself, ‘Let me go,’” she said.
Kipyokei grabbed a four-second lead at 18 miles and increased it to 14 seconds by 19. Her only pursuer by then was Ethiopia’s Netsanet Gudeta, who closed and then ran alongside her. So Kipyokei pushed again when they came to the flats, and this time her move was definitive.
The only contender in her rearview was Kiplagat, the 41-year-old immortal who has won two global crowns, broke 2:22 when she won here in 2017, and was runner-up two years ago. Kiplagat gave chase, but there was too much time to close and too little roadway.
“I’m grateful for the second-place finish today,” she said.
Kiplagat’s résumé is sufficiently distinguished by now that it needs little additional embellishment. Kipyokei’s still has plenty of room for more. What mattered most back in Nairobi is that four of their own were the first across in Boston. In April or October, that still means something.
John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.