Slow and steady

Persistent Merga stays the course, then pulls away

By John Powers
Globe Staff / April 21, 2009
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He had been among the leaders in the middle of the hills in Boston three years ago, but couldn't finish. He had the Olympic bronze medal in hand coming into the stadium last year, but ended up fourth. This time, Deriba Merga vowed, he would be the last lion.

And so he was yesterday afternoon as the 28-year-old Ethiopian pulled off an impressive upset in the 113th Boston Marathon, ending Robert Cheruiyot's three-year reign as men's champion with an easy 50-second victory over Daniel Rono, Cheruiyot's Kenyan countryman.

It was only the third men's victory here for the Ethiopians, who would have swept the men's and women's races if Kenya's Salina Kosgei hadn't nipped defending champion Dire Tune at the tape. But the men's race was decided 5 miles from the finish.

"I had full confidence to win the race from the beginning," said Merga, who ran alone from Heartbreak Hill to Copley Square into a stiff headwind and finished in 2 hours 8 minutes 42 seconds, dashing the dreams of both Cheruiyot and Ryan Hall, who had hoped to be the first American victor here in 26 years.

"Would I have liked to win? Yeah," said the 26-year-old Californian, who finished 8 seconds behind Rono in 2:09:40, the seventh-fastest time by a domestic runner here and the best in 15 years. "Did I think I had a legitimate shot? Of course. But a lot of guys have legitimate shots and don't win."

Most notable among them yesterday was Cheruiyot, the four-time champion who was bidding to become the first to win four straight here. But he fell out of sight after leading midway through, dropped out at Cleveland Circle, and was taken to St. Elizabeth's Hospital to be checked out.

Unlike the women's race, which could have been mistaken for a holiday fun run until the final few miles, the men had a demanding outing, with the lead pack dashing through the first 9 miles in course-record time. Setting the pace was Hall, who dashed away at the gun and stayed in front for almost the entire first third of the race.

"My plan was to run my own race from the get-go," he said. "I like to run fast."

Not since Cheruiyot's record run (2:07:14) in 2006 had the leaders gone out that aggressively. They were through the opening mile in 4:40, 19 seconds under the old split, in three at 14:05 (50 under), in six at 28:27 (37 under).

"I wanted to make it a full 26-mile race and not let it come down to the final 10K," Hall said. "I wanted to make it an honest race."

At the half marathon, even after a persistent and chilly headwind had picked up significantly, there still were a dozen men jockeying in the lead pack, most of them warily glancing sideways at each other.

"I was thinking that the race would start at halfway," said Rono, who finished third in New York last year.

When it still hadn't by the time the runners reached Newton Lower Falls, former champ Timothy Cherigat and Stephen Kiogora took off on their own heading up the Route 128 overpass.

That sounded the alarm for Merga, who had planned to make his move during the "Haunted Mile" on the flats after Boston College, but decided he had to do it even before the firehouse turn that leads into the Newton hill country.

"There are a lot of strong athletes with us," he said. "If I didn't push, maybe I didn't have a chance to win."

So Merga quickly took it up a gear, with countryman Solomon Molla and Rono following. Just that quickly, it was a three-man race. Cheruiyot, who used to chew up his rivals around that point, had vanished.

"At 18K, he is coming from behind," Merga said. "After that, he did not come. I think this day is not for him."

Three other men - Clarence DeMar (1925), Bill Rodgers (1981), and Cosmas Ndeti (1996) - tried to win four in a row here and found that it was not their day. Once Merga concluded that Cheruiyot was finished, he made sure that nobody else could stalk him. So he put his head down, charged up the first hill, and dropped Molla. He pounded up the second and rid himself of Rono.

When he reached the crest of Heartbreak, Merga looked over his shoulder and saw nothing but blacktop. Rono was nearly half a minute behind. When Merga glanced backward again at Coolidge Corner, 2 miles from the finish, he realized there were no more lions to deal with.

"I am looking behind," he said, "and there is nobody behind of me."

Rono, who was making his Boston debut, was satisfied with second.

"Boston is the toughest of all," he said. "I was very happy to secure my position."

And Hall, who had dropped to 11th coming out of Wellesley Hills, was content with the late, if extraordinarily painful charge, that put him on the podium.

"My day will come," he declared, "and I'll be back."

This is a race that rewards persistence. Rodgers dropped out of his first Boston before winning four times.

"I was learning the marathon," Rodgers said, "and Boston is a cruel place to learn it."

Merga's Boston debut in 2006 ended 2 miles short and his experience at Olympus, where countryman Tsegaye Kebede outkicked him, was dispiriting. But after he destroyed the Houston course record in January, Merga sensed it was his year. Yesterday, he knew it was both his and his country's day.

"Boston is one of the biggest marathons in the world," said the man from Addis Ababa. "Because of that, our people are very happy."