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Boston Marathon winners divided on returning

Winners Lelisa Desisa and Rita Jeptoo said their memories of the race are overshadowed by the carnage that came after.JOHN TLUMACKI/GLOBE STAFF

She is home now in the heart of Africa, a reigning Boston Marathon champion with an olive wreath and a new fear of the city that 11 days ago cheered her before the earth shook.

Rita Jeptoo has experienced too much violence, she said by phone Thursday from her mountain valley home in Kenya. Five years ago, she abandoned her early-morning training on the dark roads of western Kenya after two world-class runners were murdered in a spasm of sectarian violence that rocked the region.

Since then, she had found refuge competing against the world’s preeminent distance runners in cities from Rotterdam to Boston.


But the terror on Boylston Street changed all that.

Asked if she planned to return to Boston next April to defend her title, Jeptoo twice said, “No.’’

The 32-year-old champion, who between winning Boston in 2006 and 2013, gave birth to her first child, expressed sorrow for the dead and wounded of the bombings. She shared her anger at the perpetrators and her dismay that her sport’s tradition as a peaceful source of fellowship for runners of all ages and ethnicities was shattered by the attack.

And she gave little indication she would heal quickly enough from the emotional trauma of the bombings to change her mind about skipping next year’s race.

“I don’t want to say I’m not coming,’’ Jeptoo said, struggling with her English. “Next year is another day, but I hope next year Boston is not like this year. I hope the security is stronger for the athletes and all the people watching the Marathon. If I am there again, I hope the security is good,’’ she said. “I don’t want to see somebody have that problem again. It was very scary.’’

The 2013 men’s champion in Boston, Lelisa Desisa, of Ethiopia, said by e-mail from Addis Ababa that he hopes to return next April.


“I will be very happy to come back to Boston to defend my title,’’ said Desisa, 23, who finished the Boston race, his second official marathon, in 2:10:22, about 2 hours and 40 minutes before the first bomb detonated at 2:49 p.m. “I will leave it for my coach and manager to decide if I am fit to run.’’

Both Jeptoo and Desisa had completed their postrace news conferences and drug testing before the bombs exploded. Desisa learned about the blasts from his manager, Hussein Makke, as he emerged from the shower in his room at the Fairmont Copley Plaza.

Makke said he had heard hundreds of similar explosions growing up in Lebanon.

“You never forget what they feel like, what they sound like,’’ Makke said.

Desisa reacted in silent horror.

“He said nothing,’’ Makke said. “Then after a period of silence, he started to ask me so many questions, and I honestly had no answers.’’

In a room nearby, Jeptoo was preparing to shower when a stranger knocked on the door.

“It was a man in a hat,’’ she said. “He asked me to open the door. I was worried. I asked him what the problem was. He didn’t say. He just said, ‘Let’s go.’ ’’

The top American female finisher, Shalane Flanagan, who was fourth, said earlier that race officials quickly gathered all the elite runners in a single room at the hotel.

“I kept asking what was going on,’’ Jeptoo said. “People said, ‘Look at the TV,’ so I looked, and I saw what happened at the finishing line, which was so close.’’


Desisa also began absorbing the television news.

“It was a very senseless act of terror,’’ he said. “I was lucky enough not to be at the finish line when the explosions took place.’’

Jeptoo began exchanging calls with family and friends, including her sister, Lilian Lagat, who competes for the University of Texas-Pan American.

“We were thinking, is there another bomb in the hotel?’’ Jeptoo said. “We were very worried. It was not good.’’

Jeptoo, who had covered the 26.2-mile course in 2:26:25, crossed the finish line at 11:58 a.m., nearly three hours before the first explosion.

“Of course, I am very sad for the victims,’’ Desisa said. “It was an attack on our sport and the people who love to run.’’

Neither champion returned to Boylston Street after the bombings. They indicated that their freshest memories of the event — images of the chaotic scene from their hotel window and televisions — at times seem more powerful than remembrances of their races.

But they tried to preserve their pleasant memories. Desisa, a newcomer to major marathons and a first-time visitor to Boston, said he cherished the race before the carnage.

“I will always remember my visit to Boston,’’ he said. “The course is one of the most challenging I have run. The reaction of the fans was very positive. I wish all of the races had this many people in the streets cheering for the athletes.’’


Because Kenyans and Ethiopians have won 23 of the last 24 men’s titles and 14 of the last 16 women’s championships in Boston, the race is a major event in both countries, widely televised on the third Monday each April. Both Jeptoo and Desisa returned home last week to national acclaim.

For Desisa, who was honored Wednesday at the US Embassy in Addis Ababa, these are heady times. He won the first two marathons of his career, Dubai in January, and Boston, earning $200,0000 and $150,000, respectively.

“Winning Boston is the greatest victory of my running career,’’ he said.

Jeptoo, the more highly decorated runner, had previously won marathons in Milan, Stockholm, and Kenya. She, too, won $150,000 for last week’s victory.

But Jeptoo seemed far less concerned about her accomplishments than the people who had cheered her last week.

“I want to wish all the people from Boston who are in the hospital a good recovery,’’ Jeptoo said. “And I want to say from my heart to all the people who lost their family and friends that I am very sorry. It is very hard to lose somebody you love.’’

Bob Hohler can be reached at hohler@globe.com.