Thirty-seven seconds. That was the gap between the three-woman lead pack of Tirfi Tsegaye, Joyce Chepkirui and Valentine Kipketer and fourth-place runner Atsede Baysa with less than 5 miles to go at Monday’s 120th Boston Marathon. By all accounts, Baysa seemed out of it.
But the 29-year-old Ethiopian was just getting started. The diminutive Baysa threw in a 16:43 5K—the fastest of the race—from 35-40K, catapulting herself to a 7-second lead with just over a mile to go. She kept her foot on the gas all the way to the finish line on Boylston Street, breaking the tape in 2 hours, 29 minutes and 19 seconds to claim the third World Marathon Majors win of her career.
“Winning Boston versus the strongest ladies in the field is big,” Baysa said through a translator at the post-race press conferences. “I was very focused. In the middle it was like a fartlek (workout) and I decided to maintain my pace. I knew if I pushed (the final 7K) that I could catch them.”
Tsegaye, 31, also of Ethiopia, finished second in 2:30:03, while the 27-year-old Chepkirui of Kenya took third in 2:30:50. The race, along with Sunday’s London Marathon, serves as the unofficial selection races for Ethiopia’s Olympic team.
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The race started out at a snail’s pace, as a large pack hit the 1-mile mark in a slow 6:04 before 39-year-old Jelena Prokopcuka of Latvia injected a surge of speed, dropping a 5:36 second mile to shake up the field. Prokopuka continued to lead through Mile 3 with a 5:53 split, as the pack yo-yo’d through halfway in 1:15:32.
“I lost a lot of energy in the middle,” Tsegaye said. “It was like a fartlek (workout).”
Another surge just before Mile 14 split up the lead pack, as Tsegaye, Chepkirui, Kipketer and Flomena Daniel of Kenya made a break and opened up a quick gap on Baysa and the other chasers. By 30K (1:46:32), Daniel began to fall off the pace, as Baysa trailed 26 seconds behind the leaders. That gap between Baysa and the trio of Tsegaye, Chepkirui and Kipketer grew another 11 seconds over the next 5K before things changed in a big way.
Tsegaye made an effort to run away from her Kenyan pursuers and seemed to be making some headway before Baysa appeared in the rearview mirror for the first time. Baysa put an incredible 14 seconds per mile into her countrywoman over the next 3 miles to take over the lead with less than 2 miles to go—an advantage she held all the way to the tape on Boylston Street. She was the only elite woman to record a negative split on the day, clocking a quick 1:13:43 over the final 13.1 miles of the race.
Neely Spence Gracey, making her marathon debut, was the top American finisher in ninth-place, running 2:35:00. The 26-year-old from Superior, Colo., ran a strong second half of the race to crack the top-10.
“I got exactly what I wanted,” said Gracey, whose dad, Steve Spence, won a bronze medal at the 1991 World Championships and ran on the 1992 U.S. Olympic team. “A 2:35 and top ten, so I met both of my goals.”
Gracey ran alongside fellow American Sarah Crouch for most of the race, as the two ran together through 30K in 1:50:30. Gracey pulled away after Mile 20, averaging 5:45 miles from 35-40K to make her first marathon a memorable one. Crouch, who didn’t compete in February’s Olympic Trials Marathon due to a hip injury, was 11th in 2:37:36.
Laurie Knowles (17th, 2:45:19) and Hilary Como (20th, 2:48:49) were the other U.S. runners among the top 20th finishers.
“I’m definitely very pleased,” Gracey said. “The crowds did not disappoint, especially the last 10K or so. The energy was spectacular. I’m so happy to be here. I guess I can finally call myself a marathoner.”