Kara Goucher en route to her third place finish in Boston in 2009 (© Victah Sailer)
The 115th Boston Marathon, the second stop of 2011 for the World Marathon Majors which takes place on Monday (18) could feature the fiercest battle ever over the classic 42.195 kilometre course from Hopkinton to Boston's Back Bay.
The Boston Marathon is an IAAF Gold Label Road Race.
Defending champions Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot of Kenya and Teyba Erkesso of Ethiopia lead deep international fields which also hold the potential of home country victories by Ryan Hall, Kara Goucher or Desiree Davila. An American has not won Boston since Lisa Larsen-Weidenbach in 1985.
Handicapping Boston is particularly difficult because the race is run under championship conditions without pacemakers. Moreover, the course's challenging hills late in the race have neutralized some of history's best runners, and weather conditions fluctuate greatly from year to year.
In last year's contest, Kiprono Cheruiyot decided to key off of then defending champion Deriba Merga, following the front-running Ethiopian through the first half in 1:03:27 before stepping on the gas and smashing Robert Kiprotich Cheruiyot's 2006 course record by over a minute. Kiprono Cheruiyot's 2010 winning time of 2:05:52 represented the fastest-ever marathon in history run without pacemakers.
"I am happy to come back to Boston because last year, and 2009, my preparation was good," the 22-year-old said yesterday. "I am happy because the race I did last year was my fastest. I am happy because I am the defender."
Kiprono Cheruiyot needs to rally back from a sub-par performance at the Bank of America Chicago Marathon last October. He was dropped from contention after halfway, and came home sixth in 2:09:28, more than three minutes behind race champion Samuel Wanjiru of Kenya. But Kiprono Cheruiyot, who will be competing in Boston for the third time, spoke confidently yesterday.
"I remember the course for this is the third time for me," he explained. He added: "The course is like my training back in Kenya (where he practices on hills)."
Kiprono Cheruiyot is facing a loaded field with another dozen men with sub-2:08 credentials (six sub-2:07). From that group, Kenya's Geoffrey Mutai, who ran two very fast marathons in 2010 (2:04:55 at Rotterdam and 2:05:10 at Berlin) may be the strongest. Also in this group are compatriots Gilbert Yegon (2:06:18), and Evans Cheruiyot (2:06:25), plus Ethiopians Tadese Tola (2:06:31), Bekana Daba (2:07:04), and Abreham Cherkos (2:07:29).
But Kiprono Cheruiyot's biggest rival for the USD 150,000 winner's check may be ING New York City Marathon champion Gebregziabher Gebremariam. The tall Ethiopian has keen competitive instincts and a strong finishing kick, qualities not reflected in his 2:08:14 personal best. Recently second at the NYC Half-Marathon on March 20, Gebremariam has only competed in one marathon.
America's hopes in the men's race ride on the slender shoulders of Ryan Hall from Big Bear Lake, Calif. The self-coached Hall, 28, with a 2:06:17 personal best, is already the fastest American ever at Boston. He ran 2:08:41 at last year's race, finishing fourth after falling well behind early in the second half. He was also third in 2009.
"I remember being out there last year, when the times were tough, and thinking, 'Oh man this isn't going well,'" Hall said yesterday. "And [this year] I'll know I am going to finish up. I've been out there and guys have pulled away from me, both the times I've raced, and I've come back and finished very well, some high finishes. I know I can finish high up in this race regardless of my fitness going into it."
Teyba Erkesso, who surged away from the women's field early last year and made a long solo run to victory in 2:26:11, may be affected by a sore left ankle.
"I am very happy to be back in Boston, but shortly before I came here, I had a slight problem with my ankle, and for that reason I am not feeling so great," she said yesterday. "I had a problem with it before, but when I was training, about five days before I came here, I twisted it during training, and it gave me a lot of pain. I actually have a lot of pain with it when I walk."
Regardless of the condition of her ankle, Erkesso faces a very strong field. Eleven women have broken 2:26 during their careers, and a total of 21 women have broken 2:30. Two athletes who have been out of action last year, Kenya's Catherine Ndereba (2:18:47 PB) and Russia's Galina Bogomolova (2:20:47), have the best overall credentials (Ndereba was twice world marathon champion and Bogomolova is the former Russian national record holder).
But Kenya's Sharon Cherop (2:22:43), and Ethiopia's Tirfi Tsegaye (2:22:44) and Merima Mohammed (2:23:06) are all rising stars. Other established players include 2008 Boston champion Dire Tune of Ethiopia (2:23:44), Kim Smith of New Zealand (2:25:21), and Caroline Kilel of Kenya (2:23:25).
American fans have high hopes for both Kara Goucher (2:25:52 PB) and Desiree Davila (2:26:20). Goucher, 32, from Portland, Ore., will be running her first marathon since giving birth to her first son, Colton, last September. She ran a solid tune-up race at the NYC Half (third position, 1:09:03), and feels that coach Alberto Salazar has prepared her well for Boston. She said yesterday that she thinks she knows what it takes for an American to win.
"I think this is what it takes," she said. "It takes someone who just ran 2:26 to come to Boston, it takes an Olympian to come to Boston, and this is what it takes. If we can keep doing this, and having a good, strong American field every time, it's gunna happen. But you can't just have one person, you need more than one person."
Davila, 27, from Rochester Hills, Mich., is a versatile athlete who made the final of the 2010 IAAF World Indoor Championships at 3000m. Coached by Kevin and Keith Hanson, she sees herself primarily as a marathoner, especially after becoming the #4 American of all-time last October in Chicago.
"I'm a pure marathoner," she said yesterday in an interview. "If you look at my half-marathon times compared to anyone else in this room, I'm not in the same ballpark as them."
David Monti with assistance from Chris Lotsbom - Race Results Weekly - for the IAAF