Tuesday April 20th, 2010

The running world regained its familiar axis Monday as two African runners, Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot of Kenya and Teyba Erkesso of Ethiopia, won the men's and women's Boston Marathon in 2:05:52 and 2:26:11, respectively.

Cheruiyot's time was the fastest in history on the venerable course, breaking the mark of 2:07:14 set by four-time champ Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot (the two are not related) in 2006. African men took six places among the top eight, with three each from Ethiopia and Kenya.

But perhaps more interesting than the results are the two top U.S. male distance runners, Ryan Hall and Meb Keflezighi, who came in fourth and fifth, respectively. While Hall and Keflezighi are good friends and train in Mammoth, Calif., they have different coaches and rely on different approaches when tackling the distance.

Neither technique has proved supreme. Hall is the defending Olympic trials champion and finished the Boston Marathon in 2:08:41, while Keflezighi was the 2009 New York City Marathon champ and finished Boston in 2:09:26. But each method is worth examining.

Keflezighi paces himself by the strength of the field. Although he hangs back, he is prepared to keep up should the pace increase. He covers any move he feels is a legitimate push by one of the lead runners, but doesn't kill himself by doing so. Tucking in behind the taller runners to break any extended headwind is beneficial for Keflezighi, who starts the real race at about mile 18.

Hall, on the other hand, paces himself with his stopwatch. He is patient and doesn't feel obligated to pick up speed if the pace doesn't suit him. He sticks to his split times and the tangents at every turn. In contrast to Keflezighi, Hall doesn't worry about tucking behind people because he's too tall to benefit much from it. By starting the real race from mile one, he doesn't have to race the field until the last mile or two.

On Monday, Hall went by the mantra to run free and have fun. "I didn't feel I had to go with every move," he said. "I wanted to run my own race." He and his running wife, Sara, came up for a week in February, when four-time champ Bill Rogers advised him to run as much of the course as possible to better understand its quirks, including a deceptively easy first half and the four killer hills that hit in the second half. "Rodgers told me he just maintained on the hills and tried to fly down them," Hall explained.

Hall ran from the front for much of the first eight miles in the race until Ethiopia's Deriba Merga split from the field at the nine-mile mark. Keflezighi covered the move among seven or eight runners who stayed with the lead, but Hall quickly fell back, losing 10 seconds on the field within that mile. He fell 15 seconds back at one point, but held to his pace and slowly moved back up as Merga and the lead group began to slow down. Hall was back in the lead by the 11-mile mark, and by the halfway point, a dozen runners were passing in roughly 1:03:25.

By the Newton Hills, shortly thereafter, Keflezighi started to drop off the pace as he began to feel the lingering effects of a leg injury that cost him valuable training time. "I was feeling great at that point," he said. "The separation happened at the firehouse [on the hills]." Hall stayed up for a while, but with a 4:37 mile at 1:30:00 into men's race, Merga and Cheruiyot started to pull away.

Hall guarded the details of his interval and tempo runs closely during his training. In the lead-up to the race, he did intervals of three times eight kilometers at 4:50 pace with a mile float in between. "I thought it would be good enough to win," he said. "At mile 24, I saw the lead helicopter off in the distance. And I didn't think it was coming back to me. At that point I was running my own race. I was checking my watch quite a bit. Those guys were throwing down 4:30 splits. I was happy with that. If I went [too fast], I was worrying about blowing up a bit."

Cheruiyot pulled away for a minute, 31-second victory, over Tekeste Kebede. Merga rounded out the top three, followed by Hall and Keflezighi. "I ran out of training time," Keflezighi said afterwards, "but I don't know if I could've beaten Cheruiyot here even if I was healthy - 2:05; hat's off to him."

Still, Keflezighi, who turns 35 next month, said he'd like another shot at Boston, where no U.S. man has won since Greg Meyer in 1983. Last year he broke the drought in New York, a record that was also approaching three decades.

For Hall, 27, his best days may be ahead. It will be worth watching to see if he adapts to more standard race tactics in the future or if other runners try to copy his.

On the women's side, Erkesso built a lead of almost two minutes, then watched Russia's Tatyana Pushkareva slowly chip away as she struggled with stomach cramps, which caused her to lose form. Erkesso, 27, began looking over her shoulder at 22 miles and started reaching for her side and rapidly increasing her arm movement. Her lead slimed to 28 seconds at 23 miles and to 22 seconds with two to go.

In contrast, Pushkareva, a former ballroom dancer, was waving to the camera on the lead vehicle as she was catching up. In the end, Erkesso clocked in four seconds before Pushkareva.

Kenya's Salina Kosgei, the defending champ, was slowed by a knee injury and finished more than two minutes behind in third. Paige Higgins's 13th-place finish was the best for a U.S. woman.

Some top runners did not take part. Catherine Ndereba, a four-time champ, missed the race because of a torn muscle in her back. Kara Goucher of the U.S., third in 2009, was taking a year off after the world championships to have a baby. In all, 500 runners were unable to race because of flight cancellations caused by the volcanic eruption in Iceland.

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