The 2016 Boston Marathon is the 120th verison of the iconic event. And while the races were not the fastest, they were two of the finest competitive events upfront that we have seen in several decades of marathong viewing.
We asked David Hunter to write this fine piece on the battle for Boston, on the men’s side. He found the need to use pugalistic terms to describe the tight, difficult battle between the top two men.
April 18th, 2016
There is a shop-worn expression in road racing that compares marathoning with boxing. How so, you ask? In boxing, you beat on your opponent until he quits. In marathoning, you beat on yourself until your opponent quits.
Today – in the sun-drenched streets of Boston – a boxing match took place. In one corner, the defending champion Lelisa Desisa. In the other corner, the challenger Lemi Hayle.
The bout – and it was a “Thrilla” – didn’t really square off until the undercard of the race’s earlier miles played out. The awkward way the race unfurled should have been anticipated. The race day field had a quirky quality to it. Elite Americans were scarce with most on the sideline after having raced in February’s U.S. Olympic marathon trials. Conversely, the participating East Africans were bringing their “A” game to Boston knowing their performance would be carefully watched by their respective federations which have yet to select their Olympic marathoners. The Kenyans and Ethiopians all knew their place, their time, and their overall performance would be all-important.
Caution – perhaps too much caution – prevailed as the men’s race began. With none of the pre-race favorites willing to set the tempo, the early lead duties fell by default to Shingo Igarashi – a 2:13 marathoner – who quickly built a 100 meter lead by clipping off easy 5:00 miles as the elites rolled downhill to Ashland. The chase pack caught the Japanese leader shortly after 4 miles. And after 10K was split in 31:23, Ethiopia’s Deribe Robi jumped to the front and was quickly joined by Ethiopians Yemane Tsegay, Lemi Hayle, Getu Feneke and Uganda’s Jackson Kiprop, as the lead pack – now numbering 15 or more – headed toward Natick on 2:12 pace.
The moderate race tempo allowed many surprising faces to make appearances – often briefly – at the front of the race. Kenyan Paul Lonyangata – a 2:07 marathoner – took a turn at the point in Mile 8. And Brazil’s Solonei Da Silva – evoking images of the coming Summer Games – led briefly in Mile 10. Even a Zimbabwe athlete – Cutbert Nyasango – led for a while during the 15th mile.
When the lead pack – with more than dozen hanging around – was still dawdling when they split half marathon in 66:44, everyone knew the race was building toward a furious and punishing conclusion. Finally, last year’s winner Desisa had had enough. Taking a page out of the Bill Rodgers playbook, the two time champion threw the gauntlet down and stepped on the gas on the steep downhill into Lower Newton Falls just past the 25 kilometer mark. It was a move that should have been anticipated. But it appeared to catch everyone off guard – except for Hayle who alertly covered his countryman’s surge. And just like that the Ethiopian duo was off and flying, leaving the unsuspecting lead pack broken and discarded in their wake.
The casual miles were over. With the defending champion and the upstart challenger exchanging body blows, the two charged up and out of Lower Newton Falls, swung right at the Newton Fire Station, and headed into the hills – the turf where this race is most often decided. After a 25 kilo stroll where the pace rarely dipped below 5:00, the leading twosome poured it on – covering the hilly 4 mile stretch from 16 to 20 in 19:50 and splitting 20 miles in 1:41:06. Through it all, the pair traded the lead back and forth, each time upping the ante with pace increases they hoped would be the knockout punch. Neither gave an inch.
The with roaring crowd – never larger or louder – exhorting them onward, the two East Africans were benefitted by a cooling sea breeze as the crested Heartbreak Hill and sped past Bill Squires’ Cemetery Of Broken Dreams at 35K. After spinning through Cleveland Circle, the leaders remained elbow to elbow, taking turns dishing out the punishment. Telltale signs of imminent performance meltdown were not evident in either athlete as both refused to crack. Dead-even at just past 40K, the twin leaders appeared headed toward a sprint showdown on Boylston between a defending champion with 27:11 10,000 meter speed and a challenger listed as 7th in the 2015 world marathon rankings
But then it happened. Just before the uphill at Fenway, Desisa quickly veered to grab a final water. It was an awkward move that prompted a cadence interruption. In the blink of an eye, the 2015 champion’s rhythm sputtered, he glanced back up the course, and – just like that – he was down 10 meters. Sensing his opponent’s disaster, Hayle picked up the pace and soon had a 30 meter lead that was growing with very stride. A brutal duel over the last mile averted, Hayle savored his coronation cruise through Kenmore Square and then right on Hereford and left on Boylston to cross the line for the win in 2:12:45 – and a final advantage over Desisa of 47 seconds. Yemane Tsegay grabbed third in 2:14:02 to complete the Ethiopian sweep. Excepting 2007’s “Nor’easter” year when the race was nearly cancelled, Hayle’s winning time was the slowest winning clocking since 1985.
Speaking through an interpreter, the new champion – an Ethiopian marathoner in the 2015 World Championships – discounted the advantage he gained through Desisa’s water stop detour, claiming he never felt the wreath was his until he crossed the line. “Anything can happen in the marathon,” declared the 2016 winner. No one disagreed. Dave Hunter