It’s not as if the Kenyans have owned the finish line ever since it was painted across Boylston Street. Since Ibrahim Hussein planted the first African footprint on the planet’s most renowned road race in 1988, the Boston Marathon has been won by Americans, Koreans, Japanese, Portuguese, Norwegians, Poles, Russians, Germans, and more recently and frequently, Ethiopians.
But since the Kenyans have won 23 men’s and 13 women’s titles here, it’s considered a deviation whenever anybody else does.
“To win here is something great,” exulted Benson Kipruto, who on a delightful Monday morning produced the sixth men’s triumph here in 11 years. When countrywoman Diana Kipyokei made it six of 10 for the women a few minutes later, it marked the first Kenyan sweep here since 2017.
There were two races that the Kenyans badly wanted to win this year, and they won them both. Eliud Kipchoge retained his Olympic men’s title, while Peres Jepchirchir and Brigid Kosgei claimed gold and silver in the women’s race. Then Kipruto beat a trio of Ethiopians here and Kipyokei led a procession of four countrywomen.
“It was quite a good year,” observed Kipruto. “And a good comeback after COVID.”
The pandemic upended everything in the marathoning world, as it did almost everywhere else. The Kenyans were forbidden to attend their usual camps or to train in their customary groups.
“Maybe with one guy one day, maybe you alone another day,” said Kipruto. “There was a lot of challenge.”
The biggest blow, of course, was having four of the six major races canceled last year and the Olympics postponed. Kenya’s most notable products are black tea, cut flowers, and marathoners — and not necessarily in that order. Their elite runners never had been housebound, so when the doors were opened this year, the two most desired destinations were Olympus and Boston.
“It is the oldest marathon, so it has a lot of visibility around the world and also back home,” said Kipruto. “So they follow athletes most in Boston.”
There have been two years when Kenyans most wanted to win here. In 2008, after months of turmoil and trauma following the disputed presidential election in their country, they craved an achievement that all of their tribes could celebrate.
“We are still here,” Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot proclaimed after he’d collected his fourth laurel wreath.
Winning here this year was particularly important for the Kenyan men, who’ve gradually been losing ground to their neighbors. The Ethiopians went 1-2 at the last world championships. They’ve won the last two London titles after six straight Kenyan triumphs. They’ve taken the last two in Berlin after the Kenyans had won eight of nine. They’ve gone back-to-back in Tokyo and won in Chicago on Sunday.
Boston, where the Kenyans had won two of the previous three men’s crowns, was where they needed to make a stand. The Ethiopians had the fastest man in the field in Asefa Mengstu (2:04:06), the reigning world champion in Lelisa Desisa, a two-time victor here, plus Lemi Berhanu, the 2016 titlist.
For Kipruto, who wasn’t ready for the course’s topographical torment when he finished a labored 10th in 2019, this was a redemption quest. So he trained relentlessly on hills back home, bided his time with the lead pack Monday, then played catch-me-if-you-can on the Brookline flats and beat Berhanu by 46 seconds.
Kipyokei could have chosen an easier layout for her first major but she selected the city where reputations are made and where Edna Kiplagat, her role model, had won and would be lining up with her. So finishing 1-2 with Kiplagat was a dream.
“For me, it was my great day,” said Kipyokei.
It was another in a lengthening string of great days globally for the Kenyan women, who now dominate the distance. They’ve won the last six London races. Ruth Chepngetich, their world champion, romped in Chicago, where her countrywomen have won five of six. In New York, they’ve taken six of the last seven.
So when Mary Ngugi and Monicah Ngige came in just behind Kipyokei and Kiplagat, it was another powerful statement to young women back home.
“I think when they watch today and see us performing, we are a great motivation to them because they are the ones who are looking up to us,” said Kiplagat, still a dangerous contender at 41.
Nowhere else are Kenyan women as successful and visible as they are on the roads across the world. So what they achieved at the Games and in Boston was historic.
“To be a part of that, it’s an amazing thing for me,” said Ngugi. “And 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 here and they know, we can be something and we can be like them.”