As Diana Kipyokei ran along Commonwealth Avenue and under the Massachusetts Avenue overpass during Monday’s Boston Marathon, she looked over her shoulder, checking for any challengers gaining on her.
Never mind that Kipyokei had just run the second-fastest split of the women’s race, a 5:08 mile. She did not expect to be in this commanding lead in her first time running Boston.
As her competitors still jockeyed for spots far behind, Kipyokei confidently made the right on Hereford Street and continued down Bolyston, her highlighter-yellow sneakers making her short kick on the last few meters stand out. With a face full of relief, she crossed the yellow-and-blue finish line with her arms stretched above her, finishing in 2:24:45 and becoming the sixth Kenyan woman to win the Boston Marathon in the last 10 years.
When asked if her win was a surprise, Kipyokei gave a resounding, “Yes!”
“I was surprised because I knew that even at home people were watching me,” she said.
The Iten, Kenya-based distance runner was a relative unknown coming into a race deemed wide open by running insiders. Kipyokei had competed in only two marathons prior to Monday, neither being a World Marathon Major. Her win in last November’s Istanbul Marathon (the world’s only intercontinental marathon) was her biggest claim to fame.
Before that, the 27-year-old had won 10 international half marathons, with a personal-best time of 1:07:07. On most Boston Marathon previews, she wasn’t mentioned at all, or briefly mentioned at the end.
With 2019 women’s champion Worknesh Degefa out of this year’s field, many believed that if there were a runner to beat, it would be Edna Kiplagat, 2017′s winner. But as quick as prognosticators were to mention Kiplagat, they were even quicker to mention her age — 41, a decade older than many of her competitors.
Early on, it seemed to be anyone’s race. Unlike the lone leaders who bookended the men’s open division, the elite women’s pack ran as a group through the first 12 miles. They juggled places, with seven different runners trading the lead in those first 12 miles.
“For some reason, I was expecting this one to go out fast and to hang on to the back of the pack,” said Nell Rojas, the top American with her sixth-place finish.
“We were a big group until just before there was a hill, and that’s why the group broke and some dropped,” said third-place finisher Mary Ngugi.
At Mile 18 in West Newton, Kipyokei broke out of the pack, jumping to a three- to-four second lead on the others. Netsanet Gudeta followed, and the Ethiopian provided Kipyokei her strongest challenge in the final 8 miles before she fell back to a fifth-place finish.
As the women’s race passed Boston College, Gudeta pressed Kipyokei, coming within an arm’s length in an effort to slow the leading pace. Kipyokei didn’t waver. She squeezed the pace down further, and soon Gudeta’s focus had to turn to battling Kiplagat for second.
Crossing St. Mary’s Street in Brookline, the race was still Kipyokei’s, but Kiplagat’s yellow jersey appeared over her left shoulder. Though the fellow Kenyan’s kick was strong and her positioning was smart thanks to the sheer experience she’s had on the course, Kiplagat couldn’t gain on the newcomer. The victory was Kipyokei’s, and Kiplagat would settle for second.
Kipyokei became the 13th Kenyan woman to win the Boston Marathon. Kenyans took the top four spots in Monday’s race, with Kipyokei and Kiplagat joined by Ngugi and Monicah Ngige in the top four.
Ngugi took great pride in Kenya’s winning legacy.
“For me, it feels great to be there and present my flag, to keep the dominance going on,” said Ngugi, who has twice won the BAA Half Marathon and finished seventh in the 2019 Boston Marathon. “It feels great because we are giving hope to the girls back at home in the villages who maybe think they don’t have a future, but they see us up there and they know, we can be something and we can be like them and we can continue the dominance if we keep working.”
Kenyan dominance will likely be on display again when the marathon returns in April, though Kipyokei isn’t sure that defending her title will be on her radar. With new doors about to open thanks to her surprise win, she isn’t sure which ones she will take just yet.
“I am going to do more practice to prepare for the next race,” said Kipyokei. “I’m still thinking about where the next race will be.”