April 20th, 2015
Many people predicted a Kenyan woman would win the 119th edition of the Boston Marathon. But few surmised that today’s victorious Kenyan woman would be Caroline Rotich. Overshadowed in the pre-race handicapping by her countrywomen Caroline Kilel and Sharon Cherop, Rotich – who finished 4th here in 2011 – ran a smooth and attentive race and had that essential Boylston kick that proved to be the difference.
Caroline Rotich, photo by PhotoRun.net
And while pre-race conversation is always focused on the African women – who brought 7 of the top 10 PR’s to the starting line – substantial pre-race attention also focused upon two America women. Shalane Flanagan – armed with the 5th fastest PR in the women’s field – is determined to continue her Ahab-like quest for the laurel wreath. Last year, the American drove the pace from shortly after the crack of the Hopkinton pistol. Although she crossed the line last year in 2:22:04 – the fastest time ever posted by an American women – the former Olympic 10,000 meter bronze medalist withered over the final kilometers to finish 7th. In last year’s post-race press conference, before the world and – perhaps more binding – before the assembled international media, Flanagan vowed that one day “I will win this race.” Would this be the year that Flanagan cracks the code, executes the winning game plan, and closes the show? Desiree Linden – seeking to cast a new image from heroic 2011 runner-up to perhaps Patriot’s Day champion – also was stimulating conversation as another women who could be the first American female victor in 30 years.
Shalane Flanagan, photo by PhotoRun.net
Shortly after the start, a tidy pack of 15 athletes – containing all of the suspected contenders – rolled out of Hopkinton. With Ethiopia’s Buzunesh Deba – now residing in the Bronx – leading the way, the lead pack passed 5K in 16:58. As the 4 mile mark approached and with the lead pack now down to 11, Linden slid into the lead and looked comfortable up front. With Deba and Desi sharing the pacing chores, the pack passed 10K in 34:23. No complaints were heard when the forecasted rain and headwind had not yet arrived. As the first athletes glided past 10 miles in 55:37, an attendance check within the lead pack affirmed that three Americans – the leader Linden, Flanagan, and Amy Cragg, all Olympians – were among pack of 11. But so were highly touted Cherop, Kilel, Ethiopia’s 19-year old Mare Dibaba – and the patient Rotich.
Des Linden leads Boston, photo by PhotoRun.net
As the head pack raced through the Wellesley campus, Kilel – the 2011 Boston champion – pressed into the lead and split hallway in 1:12:44 – an honest, but not punishing, pace given the downhill nature of Boston’s opening half and the performance level of the leading athletes.
The 11 leading women stayed together as they raced down the punishing downhill into lower Newton Falls and up the initial hill climb as they headed toward the Newton Fire Station. Desi led the way as the group turned right into the Newton Hills. The three American women were still in the hunt, but would they still be in the battle at the crest of Heartbreak Hill?
Like a boxer delivering a punishing volley of body blows, Linden kept the pressure on. Cranking out a 5:38 uphill 18th mile, the 5’3″ 93 pound Olympian – with the perfect MINI Cooper body for the Boston Hills – continued to dish out the pain. Before long, her countrywomen Flanagan and Cragg were compelled to let go.
Caroline Rotich, photo by PhotoRun.net
The 9 leaders vying for the laurel wreath pressed on – a mile in 5:38 got them to 20 in 1:50:58 as they kept their 5:33 pace and a projected 2:24 finish intact. Swooping through Cleveland Circle, Dibaba made her presence known as she took the lead. Linden countered with 5:24 22nd mile to re-take the lead. The race? Oh, it was so on…
Knowing she lacked the flashy 10K speed of some of her remaining competitors, Linden pressed on through the 23rd mile in 5:28 to reduce the lead pack to 6. Dibaba was not done – the 19 year old uncorked a 5:07 mile that gapped Linden as Kilel and Rotich hung on gamely.
The trio dipped under the Mass Avenue underpass and swung on to Hereford as the frenetic crowd offered deafening encouragement. With Deba drifting back, it left only Rotich and the spunky Dibaba to wrestle for the wreath. Shoulder to shoulder, they matched strides down Boylston. Who would make the first finishing move? The young Ethiopian went first. But the elder Kenyan seemed to smile as she quickly covered the attempted break. Then with no more than 100 meters to go, Rotich unfurled a magnificent sprint that in an instant ensured her the victory. We only a few on-course seconds to savor the win, Rotich crossed the line in 2:24:55 while Dibaba – who seems destined to be a Patriot’s Day force for years to come – crossed next just 4 seconds later. Deba rounded out the top 3 in 2:25:09.
Des Linden, photo by PhotoRun.net
Linden – who this year played the role Flanagan played in 2014 – fared no better than her Olympic teammate. Unable to deliver the knockout punch over the final 5 K, Desi finished 4th in 2:25:39. Undaunted, Linden declared, “I beat some very good athletes out there today” noting there was no shame in finishing behind the top three Africans. Flanagan – thwarted yet again – clocked 2:27:25 to finish 9th.
The dry spell – now 30 years – without a female American winner on Patriot’s Day continues. But there are many who believe that when the drought is eventually broken, one of today’s top two American women finishers will be the one to do so. Dave Hunter