Rita Jeptoo’s objective in the first 19 miles of her record victory in the 118th running of the Boston Marathon was, quite simply, to survive the test that Shalane Flanagan threw at her.
“She was . . . she was tough,’’ Jeptoo said, saluting Flanagan, the Marblehead native, for the blistering course-record pace she set from the start.
“The start of the race, my body was not responding and maybe after 10 [kilometers] I felt like I was not ready to run this pace,’’ Jeptoo said. “I managed myself and I was OK when I was thinking about my training in Kenya. I was just thinking about coming to Boston to see if I could do my best.’’
After winning here last year, Jeptoo wasn’t certain if she was up to the task of defending her laurel wreath crown until she and three other runners — Ethiopians Buzunesh Deba and Mare Dibaba and Kenyan Jemima Jelagat Sumgong — left Flanagan in their contrails as they charged up the Newton hills.
With a long and purposeful stride, Jeptoo broke away from the lead pack and separated herself with a 24th-mile spilt of 4:48 to become a three-time Boston winner in a course-record time of 2 hours, 18 minutes, 57 seconds. Jeptoo, 33, of Eldoret, Kenya, joined Rosa Mota of Portugal, Uta Pippig of Germany, Fatuma Roba of Ethiopia, and four-time winner Catherine Ndereba of Kenya as the only women to win Boston at least three times.
“I was not expecting to run very fast like I did today,’’ said Jeptoo, who bettered her personal best set at the Chicago Marathon last year (2:19:57). “I’m happy. Today I was surprised because the start of the race was like [on] fire. I was not expecting to finish the race the way I did today.’’
Deba finished second in 2:19:59, Dibaba was third in 2:20:35, and Sumgong fourth in 2:20:41, with all four top finishers bettering the previous course record (2:20:43) set by Margaret Okayo in 2002. Clearly, the women’s elite field had come inspired to put their best foot forward in the aftermath of last year’s Boylston Street bombings.
“I ran my best time and the race was very tough,’’ Deba said. “Everyone was very strong. Shalane pushed almost all the race and I’m so happy. The important thing was I was here to support the people of Boston and to show love because last year my heart was broken, but I’m so happy to be here and I’m happy with my time.’’
After finishing fourth in her Boston debut last year in 2:27:08, Flanagan toed the line in Hopkinton bound and determined to run out front — and she did, setting a torrid pace. She hoped it would make her competitors balk at the idea of following her lead.
“I’m honestly surprised at how many women went with me today,’’ said Flanagan, who towed a lead group of eight runners through the half-marathon mark. “To be honest, I thought if I threw a couple of 5:10 miles in the beginning, that’s kind of a hot pace. I thought this may shake it up a bit and people may not want to commit to something like that.
“So I was shocked to see how many people were still with me so far into the race. I mean, these women came to run today.’’
After running 5:10 splits in the second and fourth miles, Flanagan forced half of the runners in the lead pack to take water after completing the 5K mark in a blistering 16:12. From Miles 4 to 15, Flanagan boldly ran at the front at such a pace the elapsed time at each checkpoint bettered the course record.
In that torturous stretch, all Jeptoo could do was hang on and keep Flanagan within sight.
“I’m really impressed with how these women came to run today,’’ Flanagan said. “They did not give me an inch and I thought what I had set out to do was going to be good enough to win. I thought a 2:22 on a Boston course was pretty good, but it wasn’t today.’’
At the 10K mark, the field continued to narrow, with Flanagan pushing a pace that put the women on a projected finish of 2:17:21, which was more than three minutes better than the course record.
Dibaba, Deba, and Belaynesh Oljira kept pace with Flanagan, waiting to see if and when she would falter. But through the half-marathon, Flanagan continued to set a strong pace, leading a group of eight runners in 1:09:25, which was better than the course record of 1:10:21.
With 1:16:00 elapsed, Deba attempted to draw even with Flanagan in Wellesley, but Flanagan refused to relinquish the lead, pushing the pace hard enough to resist her takeover.
With 1:43:00 elapsed, the lead pack started to make a move on Flanagan, with Dibaba and Jeptoo moving to the front. Flanagan fought hard to stay with the leaders as they approached the foot of Heartbreak Hill, but she wound up dropping to the rear of the lead pack.
“I remember seeing the women that pulled away from me — there were maybe four of them or five,’’ Flanagan said. “I could still see them so I stayed really positive and I said to myself, ‘Shalane, just keep your head down and keep digging.’ ”
Then, as the leaders came off Heartbreak Hill, “We turned a bend and I couldn’t see them,’’ said Flanagan, who dropped 13 seconds behind the leaders. “I was in disbelief that I couldn’t see them.
“I was still attacking, and still running really great splits.’’
The problem was, Deba and Jeptoo threw down even faster ones in the final 4 miles.
Deba surged to the lead in Mile 22 after running a 5:17 and Jeptoo responded by wresting the lead away for good in Mile 23 with a 5:14. Jeptoo then threw it into another gear, running a 4:48 in Mile 24, to send her flying down Boylston Street to her second consecutive Boston victory and third since 2006.
“I was happy I decided to come here to run Boston again to support the people here and to show people here in Boston that we’re together,’’ Jeptoo said. “So I’m here again. With all the people who were injured, all the children and the families, I am here to support them and I’m happy to be together again today.’’
More from the 2014 Boston Marathon — Cullen: Just like the days we used to know | Gasper: Boston reclaims its Marathon | Photos: Marathon scenes | The ‘Scream Tunnel’ and Heartbreak Hill | The elite runners | Boylston Street | Videos from the Marathon | Full coverage
Michael Vega can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.