19 APR 2014 Preview Boston, United States

Former champions set to clash in Boston

Rita Jeptoo wins the Boston Marathon (Getty Images)Rita Jeptoo wins the Boston Marathon (Getty Images) © Copyright

The 2014 Boston Marathon, the 118th running of the IAAF Gold Label Road Race, will start in the semi-rural town of Hopkinton on Monday (21) and arrive with both triumph and some sense of relief at downtown Boston’s Boylston Street some two hours and a few minutes later.

It will be the second-largest field of runners in race history, and in some ways the fastest.

A pair of bombings along Boylston Street in the late hours of the 2013 marathon cast a pall over the day and made the athletic achievements of those who conquered the historic course seem small. In the days and months following, the Boston Athletic Association, organisers of the marathon, worked with the towns along the course to plan for a one-year expansion of the field to 36,000 runners. Only the 100th running, in 1996, has seen this many runners entered, with 38,708 entrants; in 2013 the race was officially capped at 27,000 entrants.

In the shadow of the finish-line events, it’s easy to forget that the victories in 2013 went to Lelisa Desisa and Rita Jeptoo, and both will be back to defend their titles in 2014. Jeptoo, in particular, will be wearing bib F1 in what may be the deepest women’s field in Boston history.

Three champions

Jeptoo is a two-time Boston champion looking for her third win, having first won in 2006. She also has the second-fastest PB in the field, having run 2:19:57 to win Chicago last autumn.

The 33-year-old will be joined in Hopkinton by two other Boston winners from Kenya: Caroline Kilel (2011) and Sharon Cherop (2012), meaning the past three Boston women’s champions have all returned.

There’s more experience in the pack. Along with Jeptoo and Cherop, Shalane Flanagan makes three of 2013’s top-four finishers to come back. Jemima Jelegat Sumgong, second to Cherop in 2012, and Desiree (Davila) Linden, second to Kilel in 2011, are back.

Mare Dibaba, a 2012 Olympic marathon runner for Ethiopia, claims the fastest PB in the field with her 2:19:52 from Dubai in 2012. In January she ran a course record in winning the Xiamen Marathon and will be running her first Boston.

Another prominent Ethiopian running her first Boston Marathon is Meselech Melkamu, the Frankfurt course record-holder and medal-winning track performer, most notably taking 10,000m silver at the 2009 IAAF World Championships in Berlin.

Also of note among the Ethiopian entrants is Bizunesh Deba, who lives and trains in the Bronx borough of New York City and has twice finished second in the New York City Marathon (2011 and 2013). Deba has eight marathon victories at seven different races in the USA since 2009.

Linden and Flanagan lead the strongest team of US women the host country was able to assemble. They are joined by Serena Burla, runner-up in Amsterdam last autumn, and Adriana Nelson, the former Romanian who was second in Chicago in 2007.

Flanagan in particular has the attention of the crowd, having grown up in Marblehead, about 15 miles northeast of Boston. Linden, whose 2011 effort saw her controlling the race into the last mile and in contention up into the final seconds, is another sentimental favourite.

Tatyana Petrova Arkhipova, the Olympic marathon bronze medallist, will be starting as well. It will be the Russian’s first race since the 2012 Games in London.

There’s a fourth women’s champion in the race as well: Joan Benoit Samuelson, 1984 Olympic gold medallist and Boston winner in 1979 and 1983, will also run, but will not be starting with the elite women, who start 28 minutes before the first wave of the mass race.

Duel of champions

Lelisa Desisa will be back in Boston to defend the title he took in 2013, but he won’t have it easy. While the men’s field isn’t as loaded with former champions as the women’s, Desisa will be facing 2013 Tokyo and Chicago champion Dennis Kimetto.

Kimetto is the only sub-2:04 marathon runner in the field, with his 2:03:45 in Chicago making him the third-fastest of all time on record-eligible courses. Boston, of course, has start-finish separation and elevation changes which render times run there ineligible for record consideration; the course record of 2:03:02, run by Geoffrey Mutai in 2011, is the fastest marathon run under any conditions.

Kimetto has run only three marathons, never finishing worse than second and never slower than the 2:06:50 he ran in adverse conditions to win Tokyo in 2013. A win in Boston would also put Kimetto in a commanding position to win the World Marathon Majors series, as no man has ever won three races in a series and lost.

The Kenyan’s physical condition is an open question, however, as he withdrew from an early-season race citing ankle troubles from a too-rapid increase in training load. Sources claim he’s been training well more recently, but his durability can’t be thoroughly tested until Monday.

If experience defines the women’s field, it’s the relative lack of it which defines the men; Desisa, like Kimetto, has only three marathons to his name, and likewise has never done worse than second, most recently when he took silver at the World Championships marathon in Moscow.

Markos Geneti, running his second Boston Marathon, looks like a veteran next to Kimetto and Desisa, with five marathons under his belt; his track experience suggests he’s still finding his feet at the marathon distance.

The marathon-running grandfather of the group is Gebre Gebremariam, twice the third-place finisher in Boston – including the unbelievably fast 2011 race – and the 2010 New York City champion.

Wilson Chebet comes to Boston with his improbable streak of three wins in Amsterdam still unbroken. Micah Kogo, second in 2013 and the former 10km world record-holder, will also make the trip in from Hopkinton again after just missing victory by a few seconds on his last attempt.

Local interest, however, will centre on 2011 fourth-place finisher Ryan Hall, whose 2:04:58 makes him the only US man ever to run faster than 2:05. The mercurial Hall has finished only one marathon since then, the 2012 Olympic Trials marathon. His entry into this year’s race was relatively late and quiet, which may suggest cautious optimism, or just caution.

Evergreen Meb Keflezighi, the 2004 Olympic silver medallist and 2009 New York champion, will be on the line as well. A contemporary of Bernard Lagat and nearly as impressive in his late career, Keflezighi was fourth at the London Olympics, making him one of the most successful Olympic marathon runners still active, and his PB of 2:09:08 is only two years old.

Desisa will be the only recent Boston winner on the line, but 1990 winner Gelindo Bordin and 1968 winner Amby Burfoot will also be running. Burfoot, who normally runs the five-year anniversaries of his win, was among the thousands stopped with less than a mile to go last year.

Crowds and charities

With more than 5000 runners stopped short of the finish line in last year’s race and unprecedented interest in the 2014 edition, BAA officials worked with towns along the route – in particular Hopkinton, where all the runners wait for the start – to accommodate a one-time expansion of the field.

About 4600 of those stopped runners from 2013 accepted entry into the 2014 race. Some 23,000 more runners beat stringent qualifying times by 1:30 or more (the entry process favours faster qualifiers until the field is full) to enter.

Among the many runners who raised money for charities for their entry are hundreds running for charities established in the names of the three fatalities of the 2013 bombings, as well as the “One Fund”, the city-wide relief fund established to support all the victims, representing an effort to build a positive result from destructive actions.

The pool of volunteers was expanded significantly to support the larger field, and both runners and spectators expect to see more visible security measures along the length of the course, particularly near the finish line.

All of these participants are looking forward to Monday’s race as a way to remember everything that’s good about the Boston Marathon, and after a tough winter, to take the marathon as a real sign that spring has finally arrived.

Parker Morse for the IAAF