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After fading on Heartbreak Hill, Eliud Kipchoge explains what went wrong during the Boston Marathon

Eliud Kipchoge met with media Tuesday at the Fairmont Copley Hotel, one day after he finished sixth in the 2023 Boston Marathon.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Eliud Kipchoge thought he’d done everything properly for his Boston Marathon debut. He’d spent five months training on a hilly course in Kenya after lowering his world record last autumn. He’d toured the layout by car on Thursday. He’d dressed for the weather. He’d set a fast pace but one that felt comfortable to him.

And the world’s greatest road racer still ended up jogging the final half-dozen miles all by himself, so far behind the leaders that you couldn’t find him in the rear-view mirror.

“This is sport,” Kipchoge shrugged Tuesday morning after he’d finished a shocking sixth, nearly 3½ minutes behind victor and countryman Evans Chebet. “Today you are down, tomorrow you are up.”


Thus did the five-ringed jinx swallow up yet another Olympic men’s champion. Only Italy’s Gelindo Bordin, who won in Seoul in 1988 and here in 1990, has managed to conquer both.

The most prominent casualty, exactly six decades ago, was Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila. He’d won gold in Rome in 1960, running barefoot along torchlit cobblestones. He would win gold again in Tokyo in 1964.

But he came to grief in his only Boston appearance, his legs turning to wood coming off Heartbreak Hill.

“That’s the Olympic champion,” Johnny “The Younger” Kelley marveled when he spotted Bikila up ahead walking stiffly, hands on hips, going into Cleveland Circle. “This is incredible.”

Kipchoge was doing fine until he wasn’t. Since Boston doesn’t use the pace-setters he’s used to, he set the pace himself, leading the pack on a pace ahead of Geoffrey Mutai’s course record of 2:03:02 for the first 7 miles.

“This is sport and you need to push,” said Kipchoge, whose global mark is 2:01:09.

Eliud Kipchoge finished sixth on Monday.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

On a wet day into a headwind, that probably wasn’t the most prudent strategy.

“He set the standard very high,” observed Chebet, the defending champion who tucked himself into the pack until the break came at 19 miles.


Yet Kipchoge couldn’t shake the other half-dozen contenders who still were nipping at his heels at the firehouse turn heading into the Newton hills. And, suddenly, he found that he couldn’t lift his left leg.

“I tried to do the necessary but it was not working,” he said. “So I put my mind to run in a comfortable pace and just to finish.”

Out of contention with 6 miles to go, Kipchoge might have abandoned the race to avoid injuring himself before an Olympic year.

“A lot was going on in my mind but I say, ‘Hey, I can’t quit,’ ” he said. “They say it’s important to win but it’s great to participate and finish.”

Merely finishing never was much of a goal for Kipchoge, who’d won 15 of his 17 previous efforts at the distance and set course records in Berlin, London, and Tokyo. But it was the only consolation prize available to him on a humbling day.

Boston beats you up. You feel it on the Brookline flats, you feel it the following morning, you feel it for days, even weeks. Chebet dropped out of his first attempt here in 2018. Bill Rodgers, who won Boston four times, DNFed in his first try in 1973 and again in 1977 two years after he’d set the American record here.

Kipchoge is accustomed to drag strips where you shift into overdrive and just keep going, mile after mile. This was his first exposure to the Wild Mouse ride that is Boston, the long downhill from Hopkinton, the rise into Wellesley, the undulations into Newton and then the several ascents toward Boston College and the steep drop coming off Heartbreak just when the fuel gauge is nearing empty.


Kipchoge insisted that the course wasn’t a challenge, that his “all-around” training prepped him for all of the ups and downs. But when shakeup time came and Tanzania’s Gabriel Geay took off and brought the others with him, Kipchoge found himself alone.

“I tried to do the necessary, but it was not working,” Kipchoge said of his Monday quest. “So I put my mind to run in a comfortable pace and just to finish.”Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

The question now is where he goes from here. Kipchoge said he “absolutely” wants another shot at Boston but it likely wouldn’t happen next year since the date is fewer than four months before the Paris Olympics, where he’ll be shooting for an unprecedented third gold medal.

Winning the New York City Marathon is another of his goals but he wouldn’t say whether he’ll take on the challenge in November.

“I don’t know yet,” said Kipchoge, who customarily sees how he recovers physically and mentally from one 26-miler before declaring for another. “The outcome from yesterday destabilized everything. I need to go back and rearrange again.”

While Athletics Kenya picks the three-man team for the Games instead of holding trials, it’s inconceivable that Kipchoge wouldn’t be chosen. But how does he prepare this fall?

New York is far from an easy course, and Chebet will be there to defend that crown, too. Should Kipchoge return to Berlin for a sixth time? Take another crack at Chicago, where he won in 2014?


Should he take on a spring marathon? Have another go at London, where he’s a four-time champion? Use Rotterdam as an unchallenging tuneup? Will he feel the need for redemption after his Boston bust?

“Yesterday is a canceled check,” Kipchoge said. “Today is cash. Tomorrow is a promissory note. Let us forget about the canceled checks. Let us talk about the cash and the promissory note.”

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John Powers can be reached at