115th Boston Marathon | ON ROAD RACING

A stunner, by any measure

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By John Powers
Globe Staff / April 19, 2011

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The time — nearly a minute faster than the recognized global best — seemed impossible. Did they start the clock late at Hopkinton? Was there a construction detour around the Newton hills? Did the winner hop on the trolley at Cleveland Circle? Did Rosie Ruiz lay out the course?

“When I was coming to Boston, I was not preparing to break a world record,’’ Kenya’s Geoffrey Mutai said yesterday afternoon after he had run 26 miles and 385 yards faster than any man in history to win the 115th Boston Marathon in a shocking 2 hours 3 minutes 2 seconds. “I see it as a gift from God.’’

Mutai, the first man to run a world best here since Korea’s Yun Bok Suh in 1947, definitely got a helping hand from Aeolus, the Greek wind god who provided a 20-mile-per-hour westerly at his back. And Ryan Hall, whose 2:04:58 shattered the American record, pushed the pace all the way into the hills.

But once he came off Heartbreak, Mutai was on his own, and when countryman Moses Mosop caught up with him on the flats, it made for a footrace — and a time — for the ages.

“It was an astounding, once-in-a-lifetime moment,’’ declared Boston Athletic Association executive director Tom Grilk, who doubled as finish-line announcer.

You can argue about whether Mutai’s performance should count as a world record. The international track and field federation doesn’t see it that way since the Boston course doesn’t meet its topographical standards. But any marathoner who has raced both here and on a hardtop pancake can tell you that Mutai’s effort was decidedly more of an accomplishment than Haile Gebrselassie’s recognized 2:03:59 mark set three years ago on Berlin’s ironing board with paid rabbits setting the pace with chronometric precision.

“I was thinking, ‘I can’t believe this is happening,’ ’’ said Hall, who finished fourth but still chopped 40 seconds off the US record that Khalid Khannouchi set nine years ago in London. “I’m running a 2:04 pace and I can’t see the leader. It was unreal.’’

There has never been a day like it, here or anywhere else. The men’s and women’s races were decided by a total of six seconds, both coming down to dashes on Boylston Street. Kenya’s Caroline Kilel, who ran the fourth-fastest time ever here (2:22:36), simply couldn’t get rid of Desiree Davila, whose 2:22:38 took down Joan Benoit’s US benchmark here that had stood since 1983. “It just went perfect for me — minus not winning,’’ said Davila.

Even though the domestic victory drought continued — it’s been 28 years for men, 26 for women — this was a terrific day for the Americans. Davila submitted the highest women’s finish here since Kim Jones in 1993, when the Africans had not yet arrived. Kara Goucher, in her first 26-miler since giving birth last fall, placed fifth in 2:24:52, her best effort by more than a minute. And Hall, more than anyone else, made the men’s race.

He hadn’t run a marathon since he was fourth here last year and he was the only Yank in the elite field, surrounded by Kenyans and Ethiopians. But he ran to the front, as he always does, wearing his USA singlet and shades, and whenever the pack reeled him in, Hall busted loose again like a mustang kicking down the gate.

“He helps a lot because he pushed all the time,’’ said Mutai. “He was like a pacemaker.’’

What was significant this time was that Hall kept pushing into the hills, keeping the pack on pace to easily smash the 2:05:52 course record that Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot set last year.

“I knew we were in for a special day out there,’’ Hall said.

What made it special for the spectators, who don’t carry stopwatches, was seeing homegrown runners in the lead.

For decades that was a holiday tradition. Clarence DeMar. The Johnny Kelleys. Bill Rodgers. Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley going toe-to-toe. Greg Meyer, the last US winner. Then came prize money and the Africans, and the parochial effervescence that accompanies a made-in-America contender vanished.

The fizz began coming back in 2006 when Meb Keflezighi, Brian Sell, and Alan Culpepper finished 3-4-5 and continued two years ago when Hall and Goucher both placed third. This time Hall was front and center for most of the race and Davila came closer to winning than any countrywoman since Lisa Larsen-Weidenbach in 1985.

“We’re knocking on the door,’’ proclaimed Hall. “It’s going to come. It’s just a matter of time.’’

Until yesterday, time never was of the essence on this roller-coaster ride. While the course drops 459 feet in elevation from start to finish (which is why the IAAF won’t recognize Mutai’s record), the ups and downs make for a unique and devilish challenge among the five marathon majors. The constant gear-changing, the accelerating and braking on the hills, make it difficult to switch on the afterburners for very long.

What was remarkable about yesterday’s race was that the leaders were under world-record pace at every checkpoint, including a whopping 25 seconds at 25 kilometers (15 miles) coming down out of Wellesley. One might have figured that the pace would slow along the Newton trimountain, yet it quickened as Mutai went on to negative-split, just as countryman Cosmas Ndeti did when he broke the course mark in 1994.

Who knows how fast Mutai might have run had he not been all by himself going up and down Heartbreak? As it was, he had to worry simply about winning after Mosop, who’d never run a marathon, lassoed him on Beacon Street and stayed with him until the final few hundred yards.

When Gebrselassie set the world mark in Berlin, he essentially ran a time trial, winning by more than a minute and a half. Mutai won by four seconds, the smallest men’s margin since 2002.

Hall, who had to run almost four minutes faster than he did last year to finish in the same place, likes to say that Boston is a race for the history books. It always will be the oldest and the most renowned. Yesterday, it also became the fastest.

The IAAF may not agree but the BAA’s clock said so. That was good enough for sponsor John Hancock, which happily handed the winner a $50,000 bonus for his world-best effort to go along with his $150,000 victor’s take plus $25,000 for the course mark.

Records come and go, but Mutai now can buy a farm as big as Boston Common back in the Kenyan highlands that will last forever.

John Powers can be reached at

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