Peres Jepchirchir won last summer’s Olympic marathon in a Sapporo sauna. She came back three months later and took Manhattan and the rest of New York’s boroughs. But this was the victory that may come to define the Kenyan’s career.
“I came to realize Boston is Boston,” the 28-year-old Jepchirchir said Monday afternoon after she had run down Ethiopia’s Ababel Yeshaneh in the final two blocks to win the women’s race in the 126th edition of the planet’s most iconic road ramble. ”It’s a tough course, but I am happy for my victory.”
There have been closer margins than Jepchirchir’s four seconds over her good friend and better rival and faster times than her clocking of 2 hours, 21 minutes and 1 second. But coming as it did on the 50th anniversary of the first official women’s race here this was an elbow-to-elbow showdown for the ages with eight lead changes in the final mile.
And coming just minutes after Evans Chebet’s dominating victory in the men’s race it was a glorious day for their homeland as Kenya swept both titles in consecutive years for the first time in a decade.
Chebet, who claimed his first major crown by 30 seconds in 2:06:51, the fastest winning time in 11 years, led a parade of four colleagues among the following five with previous champions Lawrence Cherono and Benson Kipruto placing ahead of Tanzania’s Gabriel Geay with Eric Kiptanui and Albert Korir just behind.
“At the beginning I was not confident,” said Chebet, who ran away from a splintered pack on the Brookline flats. “I didn’t know I would come out as the winner.”
Nor did Jepchirchir, who trailed Yeshaneh several times over the final mile before putting her away with an all-or-nothing sprint. “I fell behind but I didn’t lose hope,” said Jepchirchir, who’d pushed the pace hard but couldn’t shake Yeshaneh, who ran alongside her for the entire route.
This was a loaded female field that featured two Olympic medalists in Jepchirchir and Molly Seidel (a DNF), last year’s top two finishers in London (Joyciline Jepkosgei and Degitu Azimeraw) and top three in New York (Jepchirchir, Viola Cheptoo and Yeshaneh) plus former Boston victor Edna Kiplagat, the runner-up in the last two races here.
It was not a group that Jepchirchir cared to have in her vicinity for any longer than was necessary. So after 9 miles she took it up a gear and left most of them behind for good in Natick. “I can say for me it is a risk,” said Jepchirchir, who took Jepkosgei, Yeshaneh, and Azimeraw with her. “And I decide to push the risk because I want to run a good time.”
That pace, into a headwind, was too brisk for everyone else. “When Peres made the move I told myself, this is too fast for me,” said Kenya’s Mary Ngugi, who ended up matching last year’s third-place finish. “I’m glad I ran a smart race. I’m glad I didn’t follow. I would have just died.”
This was a day when excessive speed would kill. By the midway point the contenders were down to three with Yeshaneh in the middle of a Kenyan sandwich but still matching Jepchirchir and Jepkosgei stride for stride. “I was determined that I should win,” she said. “That’s what I was thinking.”
That trio, which was on pace to break the course record (Buzunesh Deba’s 2:19:59) after 18 miles, stayed together through the Newton hills and beyond. By the time they reached Coolidge Corner Jepkosgei had been dropped and it was a match race.
Not since Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley staged their ‘Duel in the Sun’ 40 years ago has there been such a stirring showdown. Yeshaneh led by a stride entering Kenmore Square, Jepchirchir went past her then Yeshaneh regained the lead after the Charlesgate Overpass.
Back and forth they went, through the underpass and then right onto Hereford Street and left onto Boylston for the final stretch with Yeshaneh just ahead. Jepchirchir had one final move in her and she made it decisively just before Fairfield St. “I was not expecting to win,” she said. “But I am feeling grateful.”
Thus did the world’s best women’s marathoner cash one brutal trifecta – the Olympics, New York, and Boston all in a row. “I still have more to do,” Jepchirchir declared. “I am not yet finished.”
For the 33-year-old Chebet, who’d won marathons in Japan, Spain, and Argentina, his triumph was about unfinished business here. He had a miserable outing four years ago amid wretched weather that turned him sodden and stiff.
So Chebet was uncertain about his prospects this time. Not when he was surrounded by the reigning London (Sisay Lemma) and New York (Korir) titlists plus Kipruto and Cherono. So Chebet ventured forth prudently, settling comfortably into a 15-man lead pack that stayed together until they came off Heartbreak Hill.
That was when Chebet, whose personal best of 2:03:00 was the world’s fastest two years ago, decided to turn the proceedings into a four-mile track race and shifted into overdrive. “I was confident that that move would do it,” he said.
By the time Chebet reached the Chestnut Hill reservoir he’d shaken everyone but Geay and halfway along Beacon Street he was motoring alone. All it took was consecutive mile splits of 4:27, 4:27, and 4:26.
“I observed that my counterparts were nowhere close to me,” Chebet said. “And that gave me the motivation and determination to hit it off and be the winner.”
He felt no need to look back over his shoulder. Cherono and Kipruto were 100 yards behind at Coolidge Corner and by the time Chebet headed into the final mile his lead was 18 seconds.
Unlike Jepchirchir, who had to push her needle into the red zone to prevail in the closing 800 yards, Chebet cruised in and broke the most significant tape of his career. “This is a commendable performance,” he concluded. “Because today I completed the race.”
More Marathon coverage
John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.