Project Eagle. That’s the name that the Boston Athletic Association gave to its quest to get the man who has soared above his sport for a decade to land at the starting line of the world’s most renowned road race.
It took patience and persistence, primarily on the part of Mary Kate Shea, who assembles the Boston Marathon’s elite fields. But Eliud Kipchoge will answer the gun in Hopkinton on April 17.
“Finally, Boston!” the Kenyan icon told Jack Fleming, the BAA’s new president and chief executive officer, when they saw each other in New York before last month’s marathon there. “It is time.”
Kipchoge had said for several years that Boston was on his bucket list and the BAA was confident that he’d come here eventually. The question was when. The COVID pandemic scrubbed the 2020 race and last year’s edition, deferred until October, was too soon after the Olympics.
This year Kipchoge, who is committed to running in all six of the planet’s major marathons, crossed Tokyo from his list. Then in September he went back to Berlin, where he’d set the world mark four years ago, and refreshed the record, lowering it by 30 seconds to 2 hours, 1 minute, and 9 seconds.
Where next? Kipchoge wouldn’t say then. “In Kenya we say, you chase one rabbit at a time,” he observed. One certainty is that he only runs two marathons a year.
“That’s key No. 1,” Kipchoge said. “If you want to run high-profile marathons and break a world record you need to be patient and accept to run only two per year. More than two, there is shorter time for training, shorter time for preparation both mentally and physically.”
For 2023, his calendar was convenient.
“We’ve had an open invitation to Eliud for many years,” said Shea, who chatted up Kipchoge in Berlin and a week later in London. “It was never presented in any kind of pressure-filled way. It was always that Boston is the most historic race in the world. We acknowledge your successes and how you approach your preparation and training. And, boy, do we have a course for you.”
Kipchoge has never been to the Hub and knows the up-and-down layout only by reputation. But he’s quite familiar with the race’s history and its 19th century provenance is alluring to him. “It is good for me to put my foot in that road, to win and to be in the book with the other 126 winners,” he said.
His résumé, with its two Olympic gold medals, its 15 victories in 17 outings, and its world records, would be incomplete without winning Boston, and Kipchoge knows that. And the challenges — a hilly course, unpredictable weather, and several rivals who’ve earned laurel wreaths here — are attractive to a man who enjoys being tested.
All of his non-Olympic triumphs have come on pancake courses built for speed. Boston, with its ominous stretches such as Hell’s Alley, Heartbreak Hill, and the Haunted Mile, is made for misery.
It is a course that rewards familiarity and the BAA’s policy of bringing back past champions ensures that Kipchoge will be alongside men who’ve broken the tape on Boylston Street. His countrymen Evans Chebet and Benson Kipruto, the last two victors, will be in the field, as will Ethiopia’s Lelisa Desisa, who won here in 2013 and 2015.
“I know the race will not be easy,” Kipchoge said. “It will be the hardest race ever, but I am happy for them to be there. The most prepared man will take the day. I have no worries.”
Kipchoge’s preparation will be meticulous, as it always is. “Eliud has been very consistent at arriving on every starting line he wants to arrive on,” said Shea. “He does know how to train.”
There will be no other races at any distance, no Jingle Bell runs, for Kipchoge between now and Patriots Day. “I want to put all my mind and all my energy to train toward Boston,” he said.
And while he won’t say so publicly he’ll be going for the course record of 2:03:02 set by countryman Geoffrey Mutai in 2011, which was the unofficial world record (because of Boston’s non-conforming configuration).
Mutai had several things going for him. A significant tailwind. Ryan Hall pushing the pace into the Newton hills. And countryman Moses Mosop battling him on the Brookline flats.
If a headwind blows in on the day or there’s a chilly downpour or the temperature turns tropical, Kipchoge will deal with it. “Whatever sort of weather that will come on the 17th I will go with it,” he said. “I will not have any complaint. All of us will be running in the same weather.”
Kipchoge won his second Olympic gold medal last year in a Sapporo steambath. There were no pacers there and there won’t be any in Boston. Kipchoge will be comfortable with lots of company alongside and he’ll be comfortable being all by himself.
His plan is what it always is. “I want to see myself winning,” Kipchoge said. “If I win with a course record I will be happy. If I win with a good time I will be happy. In all races I run to win.”
And then, will it be on to New York to collect the sixth and final star in the marathon firmament? “I am chasing this rabbit called Boston Marathon,” Kipchoge said. “When I cross the line we can talk about other things.”
John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.