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Ethiopia’s Atsede Baysa surges to women’s Marathon title

Atsede Baysa of Ethiopia hits the tape to win the 120th Boston Marathon.
Atsede Baysa of Ethiopia hits the tape to win the 120th Boston Marathon.(Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff)

None of the women’s race leaders saw the bright yellow singlet of Atsede Baysa coming. At least, not until it was too late.

In one of the greatest come-from-behind wins in Boston Marathon history, Baysa surged into the lead shortly before Mile 25 and did not relinquish it. The 29-year-old Ethiopian surprised everyone except herself with a late move and a first-place finish in 2 hours, 29 minutes, 19 seconds.

“I had very good training and I was confident I was going to get [the leaders],” said Baysa. “Once I got caught up, I was confident I was going to finish strong. I knew I had saved energy and I had power.”

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After she crested Heartbreak Hill and approached Mile 22, Baysa trailed the two leaders — Kenya’s Joyce Chepkirui and Ethiopia’s Tirfi Tsegaye — by 37 seconds. But she rapidly made up ground.

Running past Cleveland Circle and down Beacon Street, Baysa covered the distance between the 35-kilometer mark and the 40-kilometer mark in 16:44. That was 43 seconds faster than Tsegaye and 1:06 faster than Chepkirui over the same stretch. She caught Chepkirui with roughly 2.5 miles left and passed Tsegaye heading toward Kenmore Square. By Mile 25, Baysa enjoyed a five-second lead on the rest of the field.

As Baysa chased down her competitors, the two-time winner of the Chicago Marathon signaled that she had more than enough left to power down Boylston Street. And her training partner Tsegaye saw her chance at victory slipping away.

“With 4 kilometers left, I knew that she was coming,” said Tsegaye. “I was very surprised [by Baysa]. When I saw her, I knew that she was going to win. Because at that time, my legs were tired. I tried, but I knew that she was stronger and I went for second place.”

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Tsegaye finished as runner-up in 2:30:03 and Chepkirui followed in third (2:30:50).

With Ethiopians sweeping the top three spots in the men’s race, Chepkirui was the lone Kenyan representative on the podium, a strange sight in a race dominated by Kenyans, especially on the women’s side. The last time an Ethiopian woman won was Teyba Erkesso in 2010. It had been a string of Kenyans since then.

Defending champion Caroline Rotich provided the other big surprise of the race when she slowed to a walk around 4.5 miles in, then dropped out. It was unclear why she made such an early exit.

Meanwhile, in an elite field with few Americans because of February’s US Olympic marathon trials, Neely Spence Gracey made a solid debut at 26.2 miles, taking ninth place in 2:35:00

Gracey and fellow American Sara Crouch, who finished 11th in 2:37:36, briefly fronted a lead pack of 12 women about 5 miles into the race. It was a heady time for the Americans, and the two shared their amazement at the situation.

“We were commenting back and forth saying, ‘Wow, we are leading the Boston Marathon, we need to really take this in and relish the moment,’ ” said Gracey. “We knew the race would get going at some point.”

At that point, uneven pacing set the stage for Baysa’s comeback. Bothered by a tight left hamstring, she elected not to follow the leaders as they sped up, then slowed down, then sped up again.

Baysa and Tsegaye suspected this was part of Chepkirui’s strategy to shake competitors from the lead pack. So, Baysa hung back while other contenders found themselves drawn into an interval workout within the race. Baysa knew the surges would aggravate her hamstring. Instead, she strived for as consistent a pace as possible and saved her legs.

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The women hit the half-marathon mark at 1:15:25. By then, the tightly bunched lead pack consisted of 10 runners with Tsegaye at the front. A couple of Kenyans — Valentine Kipketer and Chepkirui — followed close on her heels. The rest of the lead featured six other Ethiopians and another Kenyan.

Runners fight heat to cross finish line at 2016 Boston Marathon
Runners fight heat to cross finish line at 2016 Boston Marathon

The women picked up the pace through Wellesley and the lead pack dwindled to four runners by Mile 16 — Kenyans Kipketer, Flomena Daniel, and Chepkirui, and Ethiopian Tsegaye. A big reason for the smaller number was the five-minute mile logged as the field ran down the steep descent that precedes the rise over I-95 in Wellesley.

Shortly before the 19-mile mark, Daniel dropped back and the race appeared down to three women. All three — Tsegaye, Chepkirui, and Kipketer — looked strong and comfortable as they approached Heartbreak Hill shoulder to shoulder.

By the time they approached Cleveland Circle and took a left onto Beacon Street, only Chepkirui and Tsegaye remained in contention for the title. Or so it seemed. But it was only a matter of time before Baysa caught them.

“Winning Boston is very big,” said Baysa. “To win the Boston Marathon means that I am the best athlete in a very competitive field.”

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Boston Marathon women's split times
Mile Leader Split
1 Caroline Rotich 6:05
2 Jelena Prokopcuka 11:52
3 Jelena Prokopcuka 17:45
4 Jelena Prokopcuka 23:23
5 Spence Gracey Neely 29:17
6 Buzunesh Deba 35:05
7 Joyce Chepkirui 40:44
8 Valentine Kipketer 46:22
9 Valentine Kipketer 51:59
10 Valentine Kipketer 57:50
11 Mamitu Daska 1:03:16
12 Buzunesh Deba 1:09:06
13 Atsede Baysa 1:14:50
14 Valentine Kipketer 1:20:15
15 Valentine Kipketer 1:26:27
16 Valentine Kipketer 1:31:27
17 Valentine Kipketer 1:37:11
18 Valentine Kipketer 1:42:56
19 Tirfi Tsegaye 1:48:26
20 Tirfi Tsegaye 1:54:15
21 Tirfi Tsegaye 2:00:18
22 Tirfi Tsegaye 2:04:28
23 Tirfi Tsegaye 2:11:41
24 Tirfi Tsegaye 2:16:58
25 Atsede Baysa 2:22:36
26.2 Atsede Baysa 2:29:19
SOURCE: BAA

Shira Springer can be reached at springer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ShiraSpringer.