All smiles - Rita Jeptoo (KEN) winning the 2006 Boston Marathon (Getty Images) © Copyright
Preview Boston, USA

Elite women the focus at a possibly stormy 111th Boston Marathon - PREVIEW

Kenya’s Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot and Rita Jeptoo, respectively the men’s and women’s champions from 2006 return to defend their titles at this Monday’s 111th Boston Marathon (16) but the focus is definitely more on the exceptionally competitive women’s elite field this year.

Jelena Prokupcuka, with a runner-up finish in Boston and a victory in New York City in 2006, currently leads the women's standings for the World Marathon Majors series. Rita Jeptoo, last year's Boston champion and 4th in New York, is tied for second. Deena Kastor, the 2006 London champion with the fastest women's time of the year (2:19:36), is tied for fourth.

All three are scheduled to line up in the town of Hopkinton, Massachusetts on Monday morning for the 2007 Boston Marathon, and the winner here, in addition to the obvious benefits of a Boston championship, will have a commanding lead going in to the final races of the first Majors series.

To pull it off, they may have to overcome more than merely the distance and the competition. An offshore storm of the type which bring significant snow to this area in the winter will be passing by, and unless it turns out to sea, on race day it may bring driving rain, temperatures below 5 degrees Celsius, and a headwind on the point-to-point course. Race organizers have assured runners that the race will not be cancelled--but that they should be prepared for challenging conditions.

Leading ladies

A surprise winner in 2006 with a PB 2:23:38, Jeptoo will wear bib number 1, but despite her 1:03:47 third-place finish behind Lornah Kiplagat's 20-K WR at the World Road Running Championships last autumn and her current world-leading half-marathon mark from Lisbon (downhill course - 69m), she has the slowest marathon best of the three.

Prokupcuka is considered the veteran, with two wins in New York and one in Osaka to her credit along with three Olympic team places and nearly every Latvian record 3000m and longer. In 2006, Prokopcuka's 10-second lag behind Jeptoo was the closest women's finish in the history of the Boston Marathon.

Attracting the most media attention at home is Olympic bronze medallist Deena Kastor. Born at Newton-Wellesley Hospital within sight of the course, Kastor has won in both London and Chicago, and with a win in Boston could be the first U.S. winner here, male or female, since 1985. She also is the overwhelming favourite to win the U.S. women's marathon championship, held concurrently with this year's race, after producing dominating wins at both the national cross-country championships in February and the 15-K road championships in March.

Benefiting from the attention paid to the leading three is Mexican star Madai Perez Carillo, who set a national record of 2:22:59 in Chicago last autumn. In five marathons since 2003, Carillo has managed consistent improvement, but has not yet won a race.

Men's field looking for answers

Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot is the defending Boston champion, the course record holder with last year's 2:07:14 (also his PB), and, with his win in Chicago last fall, the dominant leader of the men's standings in the Majors. Despite his record (he also won here in 2003) Cheruiyot also leads a field of open questions in the men's race.

After his Chicago victory ended with a bizarre finish-line accident - he slipped, fell backward, and hit his head on the pavement - Cheruiyot spent some days in the hospital, and admits that even now he suffers from regular headaches. Still, he claims to be training well and determined, and with another win he would not only join a very small group of athletes with three Boston wins, but also put himself almost out of reach in the Majors standings.

Cheruiyot's task will be far from easy. Among those marking the defending champion's yellow singlet will be Benjamin Maiyo, whose scorching 1:02:43 first half last year set up Cheruiyot's course-record run. Maiyo finished second that day, then struggled to eighth behind Cheruiyot in Chicago. What might have happened had Maiyo not pushed so early in Boston last year?

Stephen "Baba" Kiogora, one of Maiyo's training partners, out-sprinted World record holder Paul Tergat in New York last fall, but hasn't yet won a major marathon. Could he be coming in as defending New York champion if he and Tergat had set off in pursuit of Marilson Gomes dos Santos sooner last fall? Can he make the tactical decisions needed to win a race like Boston?

Hailu Negussie won here in 2005, one of only two Ethiopians ever to take the Boston title, but dropped out within a Mile of the finish last year after being dropped eight miles in by Maiyo's ferocious early pace. Negussie's surprise win in 2005 was overly warm for marathoners; does he work well in adverse conditions?

The fastest PB in the field belongs to Robert Cheboror, the 2004 Amsterdam marathon champion in 2:06:23. Cheboror was fifth in Chicago last autumn with a 2:09:25, but his past marathons are either excellent, like his Amsterdam victory, or merely good. Which Cheboror will be with the pack when this field reaches the Boston course's infamous hills?

Between Boston and Chicago, there isn't anyone in this group that Cheruiyot hasn't defeated at least once, but can he do it again?

And perhaps above all, how much water will they have to run through for the win?

Parker Morse for the IAAF