On Road Racing

On course for 2-hour marathon?

By John Powers
Globe Staff / April 20, 2011

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Nobody saw this time coming, not even the man who ran it.

“For me, it was not in my mind,’’ said Kenya’s Geoffrey Mutai after he clocked a Rolex-busting 2 hours 3 minutes 2 seconds to win the 115th Boston Marathon two days ago. “But it came.’’

It wasn’t supposed to be possible to run that fast on Clarence DeMar’s old stomping ground, and the international federation won’t call it a world record because it considers the course a downhill proposition. But the fact is, a man did run 26.2 miles here faster than any other man has anywhere on the planet by nearly a minute and he was only three ticks from going into the 2:02s.

“I don’t think there are any limits,’’ mused Ryan Hall, who shattered the American record that Khalid Khannouchi set in London nine years ago. “Anything is possible. I think we’re going to continue to be amazed by the marathon and what people can do at the distance.’’

If Mutai can hang up the time he did on a course that has rendered the best of them legless, can’t someone break two hours on a flatline layout with pacemakers all along the route and hand-delivered water?

“The way it’s going? Absolutely,’’ reckons Rob de Castella, the former Boston record-setter who established a world mark in Japan three decades ago. “But it’s going to take an amazing athlete on a phenomenal day.’’

We had a day like that Monday, when there was a wondrous confluence of all of the ingredients necessary for a low number. It was a cool day with a stiff and steady tailwind that is rarely seen hereabouts. There was an eclectic elite group, thoughtfully assembled by Patrick Lynch, who has been practicing his field alchemy for John Hancock for decades. And, most important, there was a star-spangled contender who refused to let his African rivals run a tactical race.

“I like to make marathon races true marathon races and make every mile count,’’ said Hall.

That’s the difference between Boston and a rabbit race on a drag strip like London or Berlin or Chicago, where everyone is obsessed with the clock like the White Rabbit in Wonderland.

“Here, you’re racing from Mile 1,’’ said Hall, who came back on the Kenyans and Ethiopians after they thought they’d dropped him in Wellesley.

This is a different event from the one the Kelleys ran. You no longer have to be a seasoned marathoner to win a major race, and you don’t have to have the course memorized. Mutai, who didn’t get his visa until the last minute, hadn’t seen the Boston layout until he hopped into a car last week. Moses Mosop, his countryman who was only four seconds behind, never had run 26 miles. And Gebre Gebremariam, who was third, had gone the distance only once, winning in New York last fall.

The marathon attracts speed racers now, and they run with one eye on their wristwatches. Mosop was a finalist in the 10,000 meters at the Athens Olympics and a bronze medalist at the 2005 World Championships. Gebremariam just missed a medal in the 5,000 in Athens, won a world cross-country title two years ago, and owned the American road racing circuit last summer.

They’re used to going to the front, an instinct that is embedded in Hall’s DNA. And they don’t yet know enough about the marathon to know that a 2:03 is inconceivable in Boston.

“They have no fear of the course,’’ said de Castella, who attacked it boldly when he chopped more than a minute off the record a quarter-century ago.

World records in this event are unscripted. Korea’s Yun Bok Suh, the last man to run a world best in Boston in 1947, was tripped by a fox terrier on Heartbreak Hill. Joan Benoit was only trying for an Olympic qualifying time in 1983. Mutai was so busy trying to hold off Mosop in the Brookline flats that he didn’t have the luxury of watching the clock.

“The first thing is to win,’’ said de Castella. “You’re not going to set a record if somebody beats you.’’

John Hancock offers $50,000 for a world record, but it pays out triple that for a victory. Had Mutai been all by himself after the hills, he might well have gone sub-2:03. As it was, his time was a massive breakthrough, both here and around the world.

“It doesn’t proceed in a straight line,’’ said de Castella, who was the first man to go under 2:09 over the full distance. “It goes in quantum leaps and we saw another quantum leap on Monday.’’

Three minutes lower would be a triple jump.

“It is possible,’’ reckoned Mutai. “But not easy.’’

But who would have thought that Mutai would slice two minutes and 50 seconds off the course mark that Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot set here last year?

“The dawning of sub-2 hours is coming,’’ predicted de Castella. “Don’t hold your breath — but it’s coming.’’

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