Preview of Boston - the last of the big Spring Marathons: Cheruiyot to claim number four
Monday sees the 112th running of the famous Boston Marathon, which has brought us some epic duels and historical races, like the Duel in the Sun of 1982. Coming a week after the great London Marathon, this race promises to make history for Robert Cheruiyot of Kenya, who, if he wins, will join Bill Rodgers, Gerard Cote and the great Clarence de Mar as the only men to win the title four times (he has a long way to go to catch de Mar, who won seven times. Amazingly, his second win came 11 years after his first, and then he reeled off five more in the next eight years!)
Cheruiyot was the world's first Marathon Major champion, and has a valid claim to a position as one of the great marathon racers in the world. He is the defending champion, the current course record holder (in 2006, a time of 2:07:14), and won the Chicago Marathon (2006) in addition to some other high finishes in Chicago and New York. So he has, like Martin Lel from last week's preview, shown the ability to get it right on the day. Whether he is quite in the condition that Lel has been in for the last 30 months is debatable, but his name certainly stands out on the entry lists for the Boston Race.
That is particularly the case now that Patrick Ivuti is not starting on Monday. The Chicago champion in last year's magnificent finish, where he pipped Jaouad Gharib by a shoulder, has pulled out due to a bout of malaria. Not surprisingly, that damages his chances of getting into Beijing, though he did say that he is optimistic and expects to race once or twice in May. I'd be very surprised if he can do anything spectacular in those races, and given what we saw in London last week from Lel and Wanjiru, the Kenyan team is pretty much sown up, with the addition, perhaps, of the Boston winner, who I fully expect to be Cheruiyot.
How the race will unfold - some fun with predictions
Last week, my London predictions miraculously turned out to be pretty accurate, and so I figured I'd play around with Boston in the same way, and call the race strategy and outcomes. Of course, calling the marathon is a hazardous exercise, so I expect to be well off the mark, but it's worth looking at for the possible insight it might provide on race day.
So first question: Will we see a world record? Without a doubt, NO, because Boston is simply too unconducive a course, and the field is not strong enough. Even the great field that was assembled in London last week would not threaten the 2:04:26 mark on this course, which is famous for the the series of four hills that begin soon after the 16-mile mark (about 26km), and culminate in the famous "Heartbreak Hill" at about 20 miles (32km). Ironically, the overall course profile is downhill, which means the course is not valid for record purposes, but it's a moot point, because a sub-2:06 time is, for the moment, well out of reach.
Newton Hills & Heartbreak Hill - not definitive, but certainly crucial
The Newton hills provide all the drama, then, and in particular, Heartbreak hill, an 800m climb that actually rises only 30 or so vertical meters, would not ordinarily pose much of a challenge to runners, but it's enough to slow the elite down enough that a world record is never on the cards. The course record at Boston, a relatively pedestrian 2:07:14 by today's standards, testifies that Boston is not about sub 3:00/km for 2 hours, it's about the race.
And of course, the Newton Hills dictate the terms of the race. They come slightly too early to really be the decisive point in the race, because Heartbreak Hill is completed with still 9km left to run, and so don't expect this relatively short hill to be the one that blows the race open. Instead, it's the "groundwork", the point where the athletes will test one another, and the very weak will fall away, while those who are particularly strong will set their race up for the final 5km - the jabs before the attempted knockout punch, so to speak!
Last week in London, we saw a searing, almost suicidal pace from the start, and then some tactical racing over a very flat last 10km where the top four looked at each other, threw in tiny surges and generally tested each other out before a serious final kilometer race.
Don't expect the same in Boston. Of course, the pace will be variable, thanks to the hills, and we'll do our best to bring you the splits from the race within the 30 minutes of the race finish. But in Boston, the race will be more attritional - men will simply drop off a steady tempo, rather than a race for the line with the cut and thrust from London.
And Cheruiyot will be the last man standing. I expect the halfway mark to be reached in about 63:40, with a large group of perhaps 12 men together. But the pacemakers will drop soon after the Newton Hills begin at 26km, and then the lead group will be trimmed to about five.
That group will include Cheruiyot, James Kwambai (a training partner), and two or three other Kenyans - I'm not even goint to try to guess which of the dozen will be there! I'm sure that Ethiopia will also have a strong presence, as they have some very strong sub-2:10 men in the race - look out for Yirefu Birhanu to feature, he has a 2:09:01, and a slower pace will mean that he, and a number of other 2:10 runners are in the frame.
However, with 4 km to go, Cheruiyot and probably Kwambai will show their quality, as they are the standout athletes in the race, and the subtle increase in pace will see them move clear of the rest. Then it will be Cheruiyot who will have too much, moving away with 1km to race, and will win by perhaps 15 seconds. Winning time? While I'm calling it, I'll guess at a winning time of 2:07:53, and Kwambai in second 15 seconds back.
I'll stop there, because the rest of the race is really too open to call!
Women's race: Prokupcuka stands head and shoulders above the rest
On the women's side, two names stands out, those of Jelena Prokopcuka, of Latvia, and Lidiya Grigoryeva of Russia. Grigoryeva is the defending champion, winning last year's race by 40 seconds over Prokopcuka. However, I expect the tables to be turned this year, and the Latvian will come out on top. She is certainly the class of the field in terms of times and overall racing history and credentials, though Grigoryeva has the Boston 2007 title in her collection.
But on Monday, expect Prokopcuka to end her run of second place finishes in Boston. In 2006, she was edged by 10 seconds by Rita Jeptoo of Kenya in the closest finish in history of the women's race. Then last year, the weather and Grigoryeva proved too much. But this year, expect her to race smarter and win. Her tactics are usually not too difficult to figure out - she goes to the front, runs a 2:25-tempo and anyone who can, stays with her for as long as possible. I expect the same on Monday, and I don't see too much of a challenge coming.
Rita Jeptoo, the 2006 champ in that tight finish, is in the field again, and may pose a challenge, but if the pace is in the mid 2:20's, then the relatively weak women's field should be thinned out early, and it will become a race between perhaps two or three athletes. Again, it will be a case of last woman standing, and barring a bad day on the roads for Prokopcuka, I expect that to be her!
Winning time? Difficult to call, because the way she races is not really conducive to consistent performances, because a bad day can become a disaster day if the slightest weakness starts showing - at least in a closer, tactical race, one can hide and be somewhat "carried" to consistency. But I'm going to go out on a limb and say that after a few podium finishes without a win (including 2nd in Boston twice and 3rd in New York last year), Prokopcuka gets it right and wins in 2:25:48.
That's it for a bit of a tongue-in-cheek preview, let's hope the weather does play along on Monday - it's supposed to be a coolish day, with peak temperatures rising to about 12 Celsius (50F), with a slight chance of rain, and so provided the wind stays down, that's ideal for the elites. So let's hope for some great racing at fast paces.
Join us on Monday, soon after the race finish for the wrap-up and split time analysis, as for London last week!
P.S. For those of you not in Boston and without the Versus Network in America, you can log on to the web and watch the race live on the World Championship Sports Network at WCSN.com. It is an excellent and very affordable way to watch the action live since it is being broadcast on television only in Boston.
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Saturday, April 19, 2008
Preview of Boston - the last of the big Spring Marathons: Cheruiyot to claim number four