When Timothy Cherigat reached Heartbreak Hill in the 2004 Boston Marathon, he had a decision to make. The temperature was a scorching 86 degrees, he was competing against an experienced and talented field, and the year before he was burned when he made his move in the hills -- only to wind up fourth behind winner Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot.
So when faced with how to proceed last year, Cherigat elected to go for broke again. It paid off and he triumphed in 2 hours 10 minutes 37 seconds.
He will defend his title Monday, and he said he won't hesitate to utilize a similar strategy, even though he knows there is no hiding in the weeds when you're the champion.
"It depends on the pace," said Cherigat, the ninth different Kenyan to win. (Kenyans have won Boston 14 of the last 17 years). "When you're prepared, actually you can run from in front or behind other guys. The race can be a fast pace right from the beginning and if you are prepared, you can cope with anything. It's all a matter of the mind. Everyone is waiting for you to make a move."
The 28-year-old said everything came together last year as a result of strong training, and he was prepared for anything. He feels the same way this year.
"In the race, you don't know how prepared the other guys are," he said. "You just have to wait and look around and see who is strong and if [it's time for] you make a move. You look around and see how the guys are responding to the pace that was there. [Last year], finally, when I saw their breathing and I thought [there was an opportunity], I made a move." Unlike some runners who dread the rigors of Heartbreak Hill, Cherigat said he finds the most support there of anyplace on the route.
"It's a great course and I like running it again and again," he said. "It's challenging, especially when you come to Heartbreak Hill. The support you get from the fans is encouraging and you feel like you can go and go."
Cherigat, who works for the Kenyan Navy in Mombassa, where he is a corporal, is married and has a daughter, Isabella. He is building a gas station so he can give back to his community in Chepkorio, located just outside Eldoret. He trains primarily at altitude in Kenya, but then switches to Boulder, Colo., for the final four weeks before traveling to Boston.
Longtime race analyst Toni Reavis, who enjoyed a special vantage point during the 23 years he lived on Beacon Street, has covered Boston on TV and in print for nearly 30 years. He thinks Cherigat has a good chance to repeat. He said the fact he trains with Evans Rutto, the No. 1 marathoner in the world, is somewhat of a double-edged sword.
Rutto is the defending champion of the London marathon, where he'll race this weekend, and has won the Chicago marathon the last two years. Cherigat followed his Boston win last year with a third-place finish in New York, saying that Rutto's training for the earlier Chicago event threw off Cherigat.
"Evans was peaking three or four weeks before Timothy," said Reavis. "Timothy is a competitive guy, so he's challenging Evans in training, so he kind of overtrained because he didn't stay on his own schedule. He sort of jumped on Evans's schedule. Kenyans have a tendency to be competitive in training. The runs start easy but boy, do they just keep turning the screw tighter and tighter. He was a little disappointed [about New York], but it's good for Boston because he's got a little extra motivation come Monday."
Tom Ratcliffe, who represents both Rutto and Cherigat through KIMbia Athletic Management, believes Cherigat is only going to continue to improve on his success in the event.
"In terms of the marathon, based on his training over the last year, we think he has as much potential as any marathoner in the world," Ratcliffe said. "Although he hasn't had the success of Evans, we certainly think he can reach that same level. Going into last year, Timothy went in fully expecting to win the race. Outside of our small group, most people didn't rate him very highly because you had a great field compared to Timothy's somewhat modest results. [Cherigat came in with the 11th-fastest time.]
"But now, obviously, he's gone from being one in the group to the one that is expected [to do well]. It's more difficult to hide in the field, but his preparations have gone well, so really, when you're out on the course that comes into play. I think it's more that the expectations around him have changed."
Like Catherine Ndereba in the women's race, Cherigat said he knows how hard it is to repeat, even though some of the better marathoners in the world have elected to run London. Ratcliffe said there is still plenty of elite competition. "The criticism leveled at the men's field is somewhat unfair," said Ratcliffe. "I think London may have more marquee names, but the field [in Boston] is quite strong."