The deepest and most talented field of women in the history of the Boston Marathon - featuring the top four 2013 finishers and ten who have run under 2:23 - set sail from Hopkinton under crisp and windless conditions to race for the coveted laurel wreath. As the elite women free-wheeled downhill out of Hopkinton, several questions lingered. Would defending champion Rita Jeptoo - seeking her third Patriots' Day victory - be able to fend off expected challenges from 2011 Boston winner Caroline Kilel and Sharon Cherop, the 2012 Boston titlist? Could one of the top U.S. hopefuls - Shalane Flanagan, fourth in last year's race, or Desi Davilla Linden, the American course record holder - be the first American woman to win Boston since 1985? The next 26 miles 385 yards to Boston's Back Bay would provide the answers.
Flanagan - running her 6th Boston - made her intentions known early. There would be no cat and mouse games with the Africans today as she boldly took the lead pack of 12 women through the opening mile in 5:11. The Marblehead native kept the pressure on, splitting 10K in 32:32 - a pace 48 seconds ahead of Margaret Okayo's 2002 course record time of 2:20:43. By 15 kilos - passed in 49:05 - an expressionless Flanagan had melted the lead pack down to 8 which included Jeptoo, Cherop, and Ethiopia's Mare Dibaba and Buzenesh Deba. Course record pace continued as the 2008 Olympic 10,000 bronze medalist remained relentless - meting out the punishment as she passed halfway in 1:09:27.
As the lead pack turned into the Newton Hills, speculation reigned. Would the new American half marathon record holder - with a PR of 2:25, only the 16th fastest in the field - be able to maintain the sub-2:19 pace she was laying down?
The Newton Hills almost always thin the Patriots' Day field and today's race was no exception. By the time the women's leaders crested Heartbreak Hill, only four women remained in the lead pack - and Shalane Flanagan, 13 seconds back, was not one of them. Deba had taken over the leadership reins followed closely by two-time champion Jeptoo, Mare Dibaba, Meselech Melkamu.
Shortly thereafter, Jeptoo showed why she is widely regarded as the best closer in the business. In the 23rd mile, the Kenyan - actually catching and passing the Boston T which parallels the course - threw down a mile that would make even the elite men smile: a withering 4:48 which basically secured her third Patriots' Day victory. Game over. The final 2 kilos quickly became a coronation cruise for Jeptoo. Her winning time of 2:18:57 destroyed Okayo's course record of 2:20:43 as she joined Rosa Mota, Uta Pippig, Fatuma Roba, and Catherine Ndereba in the women's Three Time Winners sorority.
Battles raged back up the race course. Deba - 62 seconds back in 2:19:59 - claimed second by a comfortable margin as she, too, slipped under Okayo's former course best. Mare Dibaba [3rd in 2:20:35] and Jemima Sumgong [4th in 2:20:41] also bettered Okayo's course mark. Inexplicably, 2011 winner Cherop [8th in 2:23:00] and 2012 champion Kilel [17th in 2:32:04] were never competitive up front. The marathon is a cruel mistress.
In the post-race press conference and in a nod to Flanagan's aggressive early running, the soft-spoken winner acknowledged she was glad the race was spirited right from the starting line. "I am happy because the race was run the way everybody trained - nobody pushing or everybody just looking for me." After a pause to collect her thoughts, a big smile spread across Jeptoo's face as she admitted, "I'm happy."
Shalane Flanagan - basically running in a 26 mile 385 sound tunnel as she was constantly inundated by cheers from the raucous crowd - didn't waver even when her dream of victory slipped away. Staying on task, Flanagan fought hard, captured 7th, and set a huge 3+ minute PR with her 2:22:02 finish. Emotional at the finish line, Flanagan held back the tears as she shared her feelings. "I love Boston so much. I really wanted to win this for this city," the three time Olympian explained. "I am proud of this city and I am proud of myself," perhaps appreciating that her aggressive pacing set up the women's race for record-breaking performances. "I believe in my training," offered Flanagan in explaining her quick-paced strategy. "I wanted to set the tone and that's what I did." She quickly acknowledged that the incredible spectator gatherings - cited by many as one of the largest Boston crowds ever - played a big role. "In the last 2 miles, I actually felt like I was hyperventilating. There was so much love out on the course. It was a moment I will treasure forever."
When asked if she plans on running future Boston Marathons, the runner they call The Cold Executioner coolly promised, "I'll be back here until I win it." As Shalane Flanagan reflects on her new 3+ minute PR and appreciates today's men's race victory by nearly-39 year old Meb Keflezighi's - the oldest winner in over 80 years - she should be encouraged that she can make good on that vow.