Emmanuel Mutai has checked off the rest of the World Marathon Majors landmarks — Tokyo’s Imperial Palace, London’s Mall, Chicago’s Grant Park, Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, New York’s Central Park. Now it’s time to complete the collection with Heartbreak Hill.
“I’ve been thinking Boston for quite some time,” says the 32-year-old Kenyan, who’ll become the only man to run all six of the planet’s most prominent 26-milers when he makes his debut here Monday morning as the fastest contender in a fleet field for the 121st Boston Marathon. “Last year I wanted to come but I got engaged with Tokyo. I decided that this year I would like to be in Boston.”
For company at the starting line in Hopkinton Mutai will have defending champion Lemi Berhanu Hayle, former victors Meb Keflezighi and Wesley Korir, Olympic bronze medalist Galen Rupp, plus five other men (Sammy Kitwara, Yemane Tsegay, Dino Sefir, Sisay Lemma, and Wilson Chebet) who’ve also gone under 2 hours and 6 minutes.
It has been five years since one of Mutai’s countrymen (Korir) broke the tape in Copley Square, the longest drought since Ibrahim Hussein’s inaugural triumph in 1988. “It has been a great while for Kenyans,” Mutai acknowledges.
Ethiopians, who went 16 years without a winner, have claimed three of the last four crowns and swept last year’s podium with Hayle, Lelisa Desisa, and Tsegay. Kenya’s chances for a restoration were decidedly better before Dennis Kimetto and Patrick Makau, the current and former world record-holders, withdrew because of knee injuries.
That puts the burden on the shoulders of Mutai, the former world silver medalist who has made the podium seven times in the other five majors and won in London in 2011, his breakthrough race that clinched the WMM title. “For me it was a great moment,” said Mutai, who’d been runner-up in his previous three WMM outings. “In my dreams, if I could win one of the majors it didn’t matter which one. But I won London with a course record (2:04:40) at that time so I was so grateful because I achieve my dreams.”
Mutai, no relation to Geoffrey Mutai, who ran a world best here on the following day that year, savors life in the fast lane. He has a knack for turning up at races where course records are broken and enjoys blowing past paid rabbits to set the pace himself.
“You have to stay in front,” says Mutai, who twice was under the course or event standard in races that he lost and who established his personal best (2:03:13) in Berlin three years ago. “When you are in front, most of the time you find yourself running a good time. If you stay behind, all of a sudden you want to make changes to the tactics and it is too late for you.”
In London in 2013 Mutai blew up the field and was all by himself until Tsegaye Kebede ran him down in the final half-mile. “He kills everybody,” observed Geoffrey Mutai. “And then he kills himself.”
If Mutai feels that he’s fit — and he usually is — he’ll push the pace hard. Even though he’d contracted typhoid fever less than a month earlier he still took the line in London in 2012 since Olympic spots were at stake.
“I prepared myself very well to defend my title but all of a sudden I get sick so it was a challenge for me,” says Mutai, who still finished seventh in 2:08:01 and was given an Olympic berth when Moses Mosop came up lame. “Sometimes you prepare yourself but you don’t know what will happen. But at the end of it you have to accept it.”
After making eight consecutive appearances in London Mutai was ready for an April alternative and a more strenuous topographical challenge. “Many people have run here and also the course is quite impressive,” he says. “Many people say it is a very hard course but I want to experience that toughness and also to enjoy the race.”
His Boston debut is yet another stage in Mutai’s evolution as a marathoner. After starting out on the track as a 10,000-meter man he concluded that his future was on the road, where he developed into a top half-marathoner then won the 2007 Amsterdam Marathon in the year’s second-fastest time (2:06:29). “So my career started from there,” Mutai says. “Full focus on marathon.”
After a decade at the distance Mutai is ready to conclude the cycle at the world’s most fabled footrace, coming in as Kenya’s top gun and looking to restore his nation’s primacy in an event that his countrymen have won 20 times.
“Whichever wins from Kenya is very good,” Mutai muses. “It doesn’t matter who wins. Sometimes the Kenyan athletes are not better. Maybe the Ethiopians are better. Whoever wins, we celebrate. In sport, we have to be one. Whoever wins is the best on that day.”John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.