Before Monday afternoon they’d completed only four marathons among the three of them, none with more elevation than an ambitious anthill. Geoffrey Kirui, Galen Rupp, and Suguru Osako are track transplants who’d concluded, or had been persuaded, that their futures were on the road.
“I have tried many times on the track but my performance was not going well,” Kirui observed. “So I decided to try marathon.”
While Kenya’s latest Boston champion and his fellow speed racers put their fast-twitch imprints upon the 121st edition of the world’s most renowned road race they haven’t abandoned the oval. Kirui still hopes to compete in the 10,000 meters at this summer’s world championships in London. So does Rupp, who just missed the Olympic gold medal in that race in the same stadium in 2012. And Osako, who was the first Japanese man in 30 years to make the podium here, is eager to return to lap racing after competing in the 10,000 in Rio.
So is Jordan Hasay, who shattered the US record for a marathon debutante here. “We’ll have to see how my body comes off this,” said Hasay, who missed making the Olympic team on the track. “I still want to continue to work on my speed, though, because I am only 25.”
What all of the above proved here is that they can go back and forth between the track and road as desire and opportunity dictate. “If Athletics Kenya picks me for the world championship marathon I will be OK,” figured Kirui. “If not, I’ll try in 10,000 meters. If I don’t make it in 10,000, I go back to marathon.”
Not that toggling is a 21st-century novelty. Emil Zatopek, the ‘Czech Locomotive,’ won the 5,000, 10,000, and marathon within eight days in the 1952 Olympics. Frank Shorter won the gold medal at the 1972 Games after running the 10,000. And Finland’s Lasse Viren won both track events and finished fifth in the marathon in Montreal.
What’s different now is that as the two-hour barrier in the marathon seems increasingly within reach, more and more track runners are taking it to the street. “If you look at a lot of the top marathoners right now they all have tremendous track pedigrees,” said Rupp, the only American to win Olympic medals both on the track and in the marathon. “You have to, to be able to run 2:06, 2:05, 2:04, 2:03. That’s moving.”
The track guys, who are accustomed to nipping at each other’s heels, bring that close-quarters sensibility with them to the road. When Rupp made his marathon debut at last year’s Olympic Trials in Los Angeles he sat on Meb Keflezighi’s shoulder long enough to be beyond irksome.
“He bumped into me a few times and I’m like, ‘Dude, open up, go wherever you want,’” said Keflezighi, another Olympic trackman who’d already won a marathon medal. “If you want to take the lead, take the lead. If you need to go on the side, go on the side.”
Rupp eventually went past and won. What he’s learned from the track is that you give no man too much space. “I hate that strategy where some people say, ‘I’m going to run my own race,’ ” he said. “You’re hoping that people ahead of you die as opposed to being up there and being in control of your own destiny . . . You have no shot of medaling if you don’t put yourself out there.”
On Monday as they were coming though the Newton hills Rupp hung on Kirui’s shoulder persistently enough that the Kenyan turned around and gave him an annoyed look that said: ‘Well?’ It wasn’t a gold medal that was at stake, it was a $150,000 check, which is why Kirui finally put the hammer down on the Brookline flats and went on to beat Rupp by 21 seconds.
The Boston payout is three times what a runner can make by winning a Diamond League final on the track, which is a compelling reason to move to hardtop. “For track people the prizes are not the same as for marathon people,” said Kirui, who’ll possibly run in New York this fall for another $100,000 if he doesn’t make the Kenyan team. “There is a big difference.”
The biggest difference, of course, is that an elite marathoner gets only two shots a year at that jackpot. “It takes a lot of conviction,” said Rupp. “You can’t have any doubts. You can run a 5K track race every week if you wanted to do. I love that about the marathon. It’s like a prizefight, almost. There’s so much that goes into that one race — but the reward is that much sweeter if you get it right.”
If Rupp has his druthers he’ll perform his 25-lap swansong in London in August and then take to the open road for good. But a rising number of his track colleagues are going to keep on toggling and nudging the marathon clock downward. “It’s just the natural evolution of the sport,” mused Rupp. “You’re going to see a lot of guys continue to keep pushing those limits.”John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.