Lest we forget, the Boston Marathon was first run on April 19, 1897, the day commemorating the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the first engagements of America’s Revolutionary War. You know—the midnight ride of Paul Revere. “The British are coming! The British are coming!” Accordingly, in its early years, Boston was dubbed The American Marathon.
Over its first half century, Americans and Canadians won all but two of the races. But in the wake of World War II, with the opening of international travel, runners from around the world began arriving to take on North America’s best.
Following John A. Kelley’s second win in 1945, it would be twelve years before the next American victory, by namesake, though unrelated, John J. Kelley, in 1957. Ten more international wins followed before Young Kel’s former pupil, Amby Burfoot, of New London, Conn., stood atop the Boston podium for the USA. Then began another six-year drought before the boom years of American distance running arrived, led by Bill Rodgers’ first of four wins in 1975.
For the last generation, however, the Boston Marathon, like all marathons worldwide, has been taken over competitively by athletes from East Africa. The transfer of power has been overwhelming since Ibrahim Hussein of Kenya became Africa’s first Boston champion in 1988. Only twice in the past 25 years has a non-African, international man (Italy’s 1988 Olympic Marathon gold medalist Gelindo Bordin won Boston in 1991 and South Korea’s 1996 Olympic silver medalist Lee Bong-Ju won Boston in 2001) stepped atop the winner’s podium on Boylston Street.
The 2014 vision of American Meb Keflezighi securing the first U.S. male victory since Greg Meyer in 1983 was so emotional, especially in the aftermath of the 2013 finish line bombings. It became the marathon equivalent of the Boston Red Sox World Series win a decade earlier, as each snapped losing streaks of historic proportions.
This year, in Boston’s 121st running, another strong American contingent will take on the mighty East Africans, including all three 2016 U.S. American male marathon Olympians: Galen Rupp, Jared Ward, and Keflezighi. The odds may still be long that an American man or woman can win, but they aren’t nearly as long as they once were.
Leading the way will be the ageless Keflezighi. However, at age 41, his chances for victory seem slight, as he has announced that this will be his final competitive year of racing.
Of course, the name on everyone’s lips is Galen Rupp. He is current standard bearer of American running, holder of two Olympic medals—silver in the 10,000m in London 2012, and bronze in the marathon from Rio 2016.
Outside Ryan Hall (4th in 2011 in 2:04:58), Rupp is the most exciting home-bred American hero to come to Boston since his coach Alberto Salazar returned home to win in 1982. Rupp not only has the talent, but when in full form, he would be worth putting a bet down on as the race favorite.
But there’s an injury question swirling around the 30-year-old from Portland, Ore. In his final tune-up race at the Prague Half Marathon on April 1, Rupp finished 12th in 61:59. While the time itself is more than solid for marathon prep, there was concern. “Unfortunately, I felt some discomfort in my foot during the race today. Hopefully, it will be OK for Boston,” Rupp admitted to Race Results Weekly afterwards.
Rupp had not raced in the four months prior to Prague, as a nagging left foot plantar fascia issue forced him to withdraw from the Houston Half Marathon in January. While the marathon distance may have been tamed by modern training methods, Boston remains a particularly stern test that can take down even a healthy runner. Arrive with any problem, and the undulating course serves as a ruthless investigator. The latest from Portland suggests that Rupp and Coach Salazar are evaluating the situation day-to-day, although still optimistic.
On the women’s side, local heroine Shalane Flanagan (a Marblehead, Mass., native) had to withdraw with a back injury. That leaves the redoubtable Desi Linden and debutant Jordan Hasay as this year’s American hopefuls. Boston has not seen an American woman win since Lisa Rainsberger (then Weidenbach) took the title in 1985.
Since her oh-so-close second place finish in the 2011 Boston Marathon, Linden has had a hard time finding full form. Injuries have always kept her from full flight, though two years ago she finished fourth. In February 2016, she qualified for her second Olympic Marathon team in Los Angeles before finishing seventh in Rio, one place behind Flanagan. Now Linden comes to Boston with a full build-up and a confidence which has her talking running’s version of trash–time to put up or shut up about winning.
Hasay is a former high school phenom from Arroyo Grande, Calif., who followed with two NCAA titles while at the University of Oregon. She will be making her marathon debut in Boston, the final step in her exploration into the longer road distances. And it’s been a revelation. She, like Rupp, is coached by Salazar, and she, too, was in Prague on April 1, racing in only her second half marathon.
Unlike Rupp, Hasay nailed her final tune-up, finishing a strong sixth in 67:55, a PR by 45 seconds and only five seconds off the podium. Her time was also the third fastest half marathon ever run by an American woman, behind Deena Kastor (67:34) and Molly Huddle (67:41). Even before Prague, the talk in Portland was that she was hitting similar benchmarks in training as when Kara Goucher, a former Salazar-trained athlete, finished third in Boston in 2009 after leading through Heartbreak Hill.
Yes, the Americans are coming! The Americans are coming! Is it possible we could hear the Star Spangled Banner play this Patriots Day? Wouldn’t that be a charge.