Lelisa Desisa looks to win his third Boston Marathon title in the last four years. Who can stop him?
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In 2014, Meb Keflezighi spoiled America with his heartwarming victory just one year after the attacks on the Boston Marathon. Last year was Marblehead, Mass., native Shalane Flanagan’s turn to try to secure a victory and end the American women’s drought. It did not turn out as planned, but a stirring comeback performance by fellow U.S. Olympian Desiree Linden was applauded.
This year, the U.S. audience will have to content itself with witnessing history instead of cheering for a hometown victory.
Keflezighi, Flanagan and Linden did their jobs at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials by securing Olympic team spots for Rio de Janeiro later this summer. As superhuman as we like to think any elite marathoner to be, rest is necessary, and no top-caliber American will be on the starting line for Monday’s Boston Marathon. (I’ll be way in the back of the last wave of runners getting started at 11:15 a.m. but then again I am nowhere near elite.)
A cadre of Kenyans and Ethiopians will make their way from Hopkinton to Boylston Street in just over two hours. It may not be the same as rooting for someone with the red, white and blue on their kit, but rooting on a field that includes several past champions making a run at history has its own rewards.
Here's a look at the top runners to watch on Monday:
Lelisa Desisa, Ethiopia (Personal Best: 2:04:45, Dubai 2013)
The 26-year-old Ethiopian has won two of the last three Boston Marathons. A third Boston Marathon title for Desisa would make him the ninth man in history to accomplish the treble. Kenya’s Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot was the most recent man to do so, taking his third laurel crown in 2007.
Desisa thrives in marathons regardless of whether there is a pacer or not. Last year, he opened the year with a 2:05:52 runner-up performance in the always-fast Dubai Marathon before winning in the rainy Boston conditions in 2:09:17 just three months later. His lone disappointment of the year was his seventh-place finish in the very hot and muggy world championship marathon in Beijing last August. Having run three marathons by August makes a fourth one much easier when the weather starts to get cooler and you have ample rest. Desisa took third in last year’s New York City Marathon, where he ran 2:12:10.
Below is Desisa’s record at the World Marathon Majors:
2013 Boston Marathon - 1st place, 2:10:22
2014 Boston Marathon - DNF, injured
2014 New York City Marathon - 2nd, 2:11:06
2015 Boston Marathon - 1st, 2:09:17
2015 New York City Marathon - 3rd, 2:12:10
If Desisa is healthy, he is a likely bet to make the podium. Just three months ago, Desisa won January’s Houston Half-Marathon in a 1:00:37 tune-up.
Sammy Kitwara, Kenya (Personal Best: 2:04:28, Chicago 2014)
The 29-year-old Kitwara has been knocking on the door of a world marathon major victory since his marathon debut in 2012, when he finished fourth in Chicago. He holds two fourth-place, one third-place and two runner-up finishes in the Windy City. Last year’s race was much different from the others, as Chicago removed pacemakers. It is a good indication that he can handle a tactical race but, then again, Boston’s Newton Hills make it a very different challenge from that offered by the flat Chicago course.
Yemane Adhane Tsegay, (Personal Best: 2:04:48, Rotterdam 2012)
Tsegaye, 31, owns a silver medal from last year’s world championships and is a veteran on the marathon scene, having made his debut in 2008. He tends to thrive in races without a pacer as he finished second last year in Boston and also added a fifth-place finish at the New York City Marathon to his resume last year. His 2:04:48 also makes him the eighth-fastest Ethiopian of all-time, behind Mekonnen (4th) and Desisa (7th). He was most recently in the news as the wife of Swedish distance runner Abeba Aregawi, who tested positive for Meldonium.
Wilson Chebet, Kenya (Personal Best: 2:05:27, Rotterdam 2011)
The 30-year-old Chebet has two podium finishes in his three Bostons. He is best known as the runner-up to Keflezighi in 2014, and went on to finish third behind Tsegay and Desisa last year.
The Experienced Champion
Wesley Korir, Kenya (Personal Best: 2:06:13, Chicago 2012)
Early forecasts are calling for a warmer Boston Marathon than the last few years but nothing will compare to the scorching 2012 edition. Korir braved the heat and came away with the victory then. This will be his fourth running on the Boston course, and he holds that upper hand over most of the competition. Most recently, he has been very vocal about Kenya’s anti-doping legislation, so it will be interesting to see how the 30-year-old veteran has been able to balance his work in Parliament with his preparation as a professional runner.
The American Hopes
Meb Keflezighi will likely be near the finish line before anyone else but that’s because he is serving as a race ambassador. The top U.S. marathoners may have just recently started running longer distances again as their bodies recovered from February’s U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Los Angeles. Full-time lawyer Ian Burrell holds a personal best of 2:13:26 and may duke it out with former Oklahoma State star Girma Macheso, who will be making his marathon debut.
The women’s race
Tirfi Tsegaye, Ethiopia (Personal Best: 2:19:41, Dubai 2016)
While compatriot Tigist Tufa stole the show with her upset win over arguably the strongest field of women ever assembled at last year’s London Marathon, Tsegaye finished third in 2:23:41 and later took eighth at the world championships. Her breakout race came just a few months ago, when she ran 2:19:41 to tie as the 13th-fastest woman of all-time. Tsegaye, 31, last attempted the Dubai-Boston combo in 2013 and finished first and fifth, respectively. She hopes a better build-up in 2016 will yield a second victory.
Her résumé also includes victories at the 2013 Dubai Marathon, 2014 Tokyo Marathon and 2014 Berlin Marathon.
Caroline Rotich, Kenya (Personal Best: 2:23:22, Chicago 2012)
Boston is fun to watch because in many cases you have to look further down a list of personal bests to find the winner. Rotich, 31, did not have the fastest personal best last year before her victory nor did Keflezighi in his 2014 run. Tactics can go a long way. This year Rotich has 10 women with faster personal bests than her’s as she attempts to defend her crown. Her most recent marathon was a 10th-place finish last fall in New York. She is coming off a fifth-place finish at the NYC Half in 1:10:45, which is just a tad slower than her 1:09:53 the year before. With ideal weather conditions and a possible tailwind, the course may favor the runners with a faster personal best on Monday. Rotich may have to find more than just tactics to walk away victorious again.
Finally on top?
Buzunesh Deba, Ethiopia (Personal Best: 2:19:59, Boston 2014)
Rita Jeptoo robbed Deba of the title with an incredible run in 2014 that we later found out was fueled by EPO. Deba, 28, holds the second-fastest personal best of the field, behind 2012 Olympic champion Tiki Gelana, who has not performed to her best since then with her last race coming in May 2015. Deba dropped out of the 2015 New York City Marathon with knee issues and struggled at last month’s NYC Half.
Joyce Chepkirui, Kenya (Personal Best: 2:24:11, Amsterdam 2015)
Chepkirui, 27, just narrowly lost out to Molly Huddle at last month’s NYC Half in 1:07:41. The focus shifts to making sure she can handle the next 13.1 miles of a race. She has struggled in Boston, with a 2:29:07 last year, in her first run on the course. Her wins, in Amsterdam and Honolulu, came in late-season races away from top-level competition from the World Marathon Majors. Can she finally race well in the spring?
New kid on the block
Amane Beriso, Ethiopia (Personal Best: 2:20:48, Duabi 2016)
The 24-year-old impressed in her marathon debut in January, where she finished second to Tsegaye. Last year, Ethiopia’s Mare Dibaba also showed signs of fitness with a fast marathon in January before finishing second in Boston. If Beriso can handle Boston’s hills, she has the wheels for a fast time.
Lots of eyes will be on Neely Spence Gracey as she makes her marathon debut after a successful string of personal bests at shorter distances including 1:09:59 for the half marathon. Gracey has a funny tie to the Boston Marathon. In 1990, her father, Steve, finished 19th in Boston—and then learned, moments after he crossed the finish line, that his wife had just given birth. A debut in Boston just seems right.
Gracey was 10th at last month’s NYC Half in 1:13:17, after opting not to make her debut at the hot U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Los Angeles.
Sarah Crouch, who missed the trials due to an injury, was 12th at last year’s Chicago Marathon and holds a personal best of 2:32:44. She could contend for the title of top American.