Lelisa Desisa returned to win after Marathon bombings

He was so far ahead coming down Boylston Street that he had plenty of time to wave and blow kisses, just as Johnny (The Elder) Kelley did during his final decades. Lelisa Desisa had won this race two years ago, before the finish line became a place of carnage and horror. He returned two months later to give his winner’s medal to the city as a tribute to the victims and their families.

On Monday afternoon the man from Ethiopia earned himself another medal in a most satisfying reprise, running away from countryman Yemane Adhane Tsegay in the final few miles to win the 119th Boston Marathon in 2 hours, 9 minutes, and 17 seconds, a most creditable clocking on a raw day with a stiff headwind.


“Boston a second time,” said the 25-year-old Desisa, whose 31-second victory margin was the largest since Kenya’s Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot won by a minute and 18 seconds in 2008. “No question, two wins is very difficult.”

Since England’s Geoff Smith went back-to-back in 1984 and 1985, no non-Kenyan male had managed that here. And until Monday, the Ethiopian men never had gone 1-2 in a race that their neighbors have owned since the early ’90s. “We held together,” said Desisa. “This result for us, our country, is a big, big, big result.”

This was an olive wreath that might well have gone to a Kenyan or a Yank. Going into the Newton hills, Dathan Ritzenhein and defending champion Meb Keflezighi were sitting first and third in a 10-man pack that was bounding along at a reasonable 2:09-plus pace.

“I heard a lot of ‘Repeat-Repeat’, ” said Keflezighi, who was bidding to become the first American to do it since Bill Rodgers won his third straight in 1980. “I was definitely thinking of that. I thought I had a shot at it.”


Last year Keflezighi caught the Africans lollygagging through Natick and bolted away to sew things up by the midway point. That wasn’t going to happen twice. “I was not letting someone go,” said Kenya’s Wilson Chebet, who closed on Keflezighi in the flats last year but couldn’t catch him.

After 10 kilometers, midway through Framingham, the pack was humming along at 29:43, on pace for 2:05:21. Coming through Natick there still were a dozen contenders hanging together so Desisa decided to throw in a reality check. “I try to test all the athletes to see who has more than me,” he said.

None had more and none less. His countrymen Tsegay, Tadese Tola, and Gebre Gebremariam still were with him as were former champion Wesley Korir and Kenyan colleagues Frankline Chepkwony, Bernard Kipyego, and Chebet. “It was four Ethiopians and four Kenyans,” said Keflezighi, who was the lone American in the bunch. “I said, c’mon, Dathan.”

Ritzenhein, who was making his Boston debut at 32, is an experienced hand who was ninth at the Beijing Olympics and has top-10 finishes in New York and Chicago. But after not having gone 26 miles in a year and a half, he wanted to be cautious. Coming into Wellesley, though, he was 15 seconds behind the leaders. So Ritzenhein amped things up and found himself two seconds ahead coming down toward Newton Lower Falls.

At the firehouse turn it still was anybody’s race, with all 10 men within a second of one another. That changed after Heartbreak, where the Ethiopians began asserting themselves. “After 35K, knowing who was around me, I knew I was going to win because my speed was greater than theirs,” said Desisa.


By then Ritzenhein, who’d had trouble with the final miles in previous races, had decided to play it safe. “Of course you always think maybe today is the day,” he said after placing seventh in 2:11:20. “But as I stepped over the hill I decided not to go with them.”

Keflezighi, who’d briefly led at 20 miles, couldn’t go with the Ethiopians. The drink he’d gulped at the next water table rebelled on him and he stopped to upchuck. By then, his chance had fled. “I just wanted to get to the finish line,” said Keflezighi, who came in eighth in 2:12:42 after stopping five times. “Took a long time.”

This was Desisa’s day. He’d dropped out during his own repeat bid last year and was outkicked by Kenya’s Wilson Kipsang in New York. But he knew this course and had done specific work for its ups-and-downs and he knew as he went along Beacon Street that nobody was going to catch him. By Coolidge Corner Desisa was three seconds up on Tsegay and with 2 miles to go was pulling away.

It wasn’t that way two years ago when Gebremariam and Kenya’s Micah Kogo were with him with less than a mile to go and he had to shift into overdrive to pull away and prevail by five seconds. This time Desisa was solo and serene and Boylston Street was his personal victory lane. “I am happy for Number 1,” he declared. “I am happy to win and for a strong Boston 2013.”


His rewards were the same as they were two years ago — an olive wreath, a $150,000 payout, a gold medal, and a silver loving cup. But the memory of this victory, both for the champion and the city, will be one to savor.

Men's top finishers
Time Country
Lelisa Desisa 2:09:17 ETH
Yemane Adhane Tsegay 2:09:48 ETH
Wilson Chebet 2:10:22 KEN
Bernard Kipyego 2:10:47 KEN
Wesley Korir 2:10:49 KEN
Frankline Chepkwony 2:10:52 KEN
Dathan Ritzenhein 2:11:20 USA
Meb Keflezighi 2:12:42 USA
Tadese Tola 2:13:35 ETH
Vitally Shafar 2:13:52 UKR
SOURCE: Boston Athletic Association
Globe Staff

Follow John Powers on Twitter at @jpowizglobe