Maybe they should have skipped the suburbs, bypassed the hills, and made the race into a simple 10K from the bottom of Heartbreak to Copley Square. That was the essence of the 123rd Boston Marathon, when an eight-man scramble along the Brookline flats came down to a two-man fight along Boylston Street and a laurel wreath decided by a couple of strides.
“To me, it is something amazing,” said Kenya’s Lawrence Cherono, after he’d outkicked Ethiopian and former champion Lelisa Desisa Monday afternoon to win by two seconds in the fastest time here (2 hours, 7 minutes, and 57 seconds) since countryman Geoffrey Mutai ran a world-best 2:03:02 in 2011. “It was not easy.”
The margin equaled the third-closest in race history, matching the 1978 finish between Bill Rodgers and Jeff Wells and the 1982 ‘Duel in the Sun’ between Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley. The difference was that this appeared to be anyone’s race after 21 miles, when half a dozen Kenyans, Desisa, and US runner Scott Fauble were all within a second of one another. “It started at 30 kilometers (18 miles) and we were all grouped from there,” said Cherono. “We kept up on a pace until we started to break the group.”
After last year’s torrential conditions produced an unlikely victor in Japan’s Yuki Kawauchi (17th this time), Monday morning’s tropical weather (59 degrees with 81 percent humidity) seemed to favor the Africans, who’ve dominated the race for the last three decades. But it was the Americans who set the early pace, first with Elkanah Kibet coming into Natick, then Jared Ward.
“That was so fun to be leading through Wellesley and hear the screams out there,” said Ward, who finished sixth in muggy conditions at the Rio Olympics and hung on for eighth here. “A really, really cool experience.”
If the Africans were willing to let them hang around, the Yanks were more than happy to stay on their shoulders past the firehouse turn and beyond. “I was thinking: ‘Holy beep, I’m leading the beeping Boston Marathon’,” said Fauble, who saw nothing but blacktop ahead of him at 18 miles. “It was such a surreal experience to be leading a race I grew up watching on TV. I just tried to soak in the moment of actually being in front.”
Fauble, a 2:12 marathoner surrounded by a bunch of sub-2:07s, reckoned that playing their game wasn’t going to be productive. “I knew when we got over Heartbreak that if they were going to keep playing cat-and-mouse, that was not going to be good for me,” said Fauble, who ended up seventh in 2:09:09. “I just wanted to get into my top gear and grind and basically time-trial the last four or five miles as fast as I could go. Maybe that’s not the best decision tactically, but that was going to be the best decision for me. And then I got dropped pretty quickly.”
By the time they went past Cleveland Circle it was down to a four-man race among Geoffrey Kirui, Desisa, Cherono, and Kenneth Kipkemoi. “It was no man’s race to win,” said Cherono. So they cranked up the pace and put together 4:55 and 4:54 miles through Coolidge Corner. “The last three miles were fast,” said Kipkemoi, who ended up third (2:08:07) in his Boston debut “Everyone was trying to break through.”
Kirui, who won here in 2017 and led last year’s race at Heartbreak by a minute and a half before coming unglued, made the first move, soon paid for it, and faded to fifth. “I am afraid of the guy who won two years ago,” said Desisa, who’d prevailed here in 2013 and 2015. “After he dropped off I decided to go for it. I decided to sprint to win.”
Desisa, who won in New York last year after dropping out here, made his move after the turn onto Hereford Street and probably went too early. Cherono waited until the final straightaway to take his shot. He’d won half a dozen 26-milers in Amsterdam, Honolulu, Prague, and Seville, but he’d never before been so close to collecting a $150,000 paycheck and becoming front-page news in Nairobi.
While Cherono had the fastest marathon time (2:04:06) coming in, it was the final 385 yards that worried him. “Personally, I am poor in finishing races,” said Cherono, after he’d busted Desisa in the final few steps to break his first tape at a major. “But this day I did a fantastic job. It was nice for me.”
John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.