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How Cheruiyot Did It

Photo: PhotoRun
Photo: PhotoRun

The “shocking” course record performance at Monday’s Boston Marathon was the result of a perfect storm of factors.

Written by: Matt Fitzgerald

All week I have been talking with my running friends and colleagues about Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot’s amazing 2:05:52 course record run at Boston. Most have expressed astonishment at the performance. One in particular expressed outright disbelief. “I think he’s on drugs,” she said.

I’m not sure how widespread this suspicion is, but the thought had never crossed my mind until my friend voiced the notion. You see, I had thought that a new Boston Marathon men’s course record was not unlikely before the race. I had also thought it not unlikely that Cheruiyot would win the race. You’ll have to trust me on the first claim. I had thought about including a discussion of the possibility of a record time in the predictions segment that my colleague Sean McKeon and I filmed for the April 18 edition of RunCenter, but I decided against it in consideration of time. If you watch the show, though, you will see that we did pick Cheruiyot as the leading dark horse contender to win.

I am pretty sure Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot is not on drugs. To begin with, I am pretty sure most Kenyan runners are not on drugs. There are too many other factors to explain their dominance in the sport of running. Plus, doping tends to happen in cultures of doping. So, if any Kenyan runners are doping, then most are. But very, very few Kenyan runners have ever been busted. Lots of Chinese runners have been busted. Lots of Russians, Moroccans, Spaniards, and Italians too. But almost no Kenyans. Why not? Because runners of other nationalities are being picked on? Please.

Furthermore, the Kenyan runners who are least likely to dope are the very young ones who have seldom been outside of their country. There is simply no access to drugs like EPO in the remote mountain village of Eldoret, where 21-year-old Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot has trained. Westerners who have spent time there have told me that the idea of Kenyan runners supporting their altitude exposure and hard training in that environment with performance enhancing drug use is utterly laughable.

So how did Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot run 2:05:52 in Boston? Here’s how.

1. Incredible talent

Two weeks after his 20th birthday, Cheruiyot won the 2008 Frankfurt Marathon (his first) with a time of 2:07:21. Let that sink in for a moment. I don’t know about you, but my understanding of the sport tells me that a 20-year-old who runs a 2:07 marathon is destined to do astonishing things in future marathons.

2. Experience

The reason I thought that Cheruiyot would be a strong contender to win Boston was that he now has experience to alloy his talent. When I asked Cheruiyot’s manager, Valentijn Trouw, if his client’s breakthrough performance had been preceded by any breakthrough in training, he answered, “I think his breakthrough in Boston is much more because it’s his fourth marathon and he is now really starting to understand how to compete [in] a marathon. He was a bit too aggressive in his third marathon in Frankfurt.” (Trouw here refers to last year’s Franfurt Marathon, where Cheruiyot finished second and lowered his PR to 2:06:23.) “He learned from that experience and now did everything right in Boston. He needed his first three marathons to really understand the marathon. In Boston he showed the experience paid and he understands the marathon distance now!”

It bears mentioning that Cheruiyot’s second marathon was a fifth-place performance at Boston last year. All who have competed on Boston’s unique course agree that specific experience on it is invaluable preparation for future Boston Marathons.

3. A very deep men’s field

The reason I thought a course record was much more likely in the men’s race than in the women’s was that the men’s elite field in Boston this year was incredibly deep, while the women’s was not. Even with four-time winner Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot scratching with injury, no fewer than eight sub-2:07 marathoners remained in the field. So there were plenty of runners capable of beating the existing 2:07:14 course record. But there was also a critical mass of talent to make for a very competitive, hence fast, race, provided it got off to a reasonably fast start.

4. Boston is a faster course than people think

The Boston Marathon has a reputation as a slow course, but it’s really not. The route is a net downhill and while its uphill segments certainly slow runners down, the numbers suggest that they do not slow down the top elite runners as much as is perceived. Heartbreak Hill climbs a measly 80 feet. Cheruiyot and Deriba Merga ran a 4:37 mile over Heartbreak Hill this year. That’s not only a testament to the amazing fitness of Cheruiyot and Merga. It’s also proof that such a thing is possible.

Boston’s course is not as fast as the pancake-flat, London, Chicago, and Berlin Marathons. But Boston’s hills are not the primary reason that winning times in Boston tend to be a little slower. A more important factor is the lack of formal record attempts in Boston. Consider that, in 1994, Cosmas Ndeti ran 2:07:15 in Boston. The world record at that time was 2:06:50—just 25 seconds faster. Over the next 15 years, the world record dropped by almost three minutes, to 2:03:59, largely because the races in which new records were set were set up for record attempts, with record-craving runners offered huge appearance fees and bonus prizes to chase records and with rabbits employed to aid them. Meanwhile the Boston course record was lowered by just one second between 1994 and 2010, because such measures were not used.

I believe that the gap of 25 seconds between the Boston and world records in 1994 was more representative of the true difference in the relative speed between Boston and Berlin et al than was the gap of 3 minutes and 16 seconds that existed until Monday. Cheruiyot’s run was a bit of a correction.

5. Ideal Weather

Besides the lack of world record bonuses and rabbits, the other factor that is more influential than Heartbreak Hill in making Boston Marathon winning times typically a little slower than winning times in some other marathons is that the weather in Boston on Patriot’s day is not often ideal for fast running. It’s usually either too wet, too warm, or too windy. 2010 was one of those years when Mother Nature cooperated. Research has shown that temperatures in the 40’s (colder than you might think) are optimal for fast marathon running. The start line temperature in Hopkinton on Monday was 47 degrees. The winds were out of the north-northwest, thus acting as tail/crosswinds on the eastward-headed runners. And the air was dry.

6. De Facto Pace Making

Ryan Hall made a strategic decision to keep the pace honest through the first half of the race. He led the pack through the two-mile mark in 9:40. That pace of 4:50 per mile was just off the pace of 4:48 per mile that Cheruiyot wound up averaging over the full distance of the race. In other words, Hall set up Cheruiyot perfectly for his record.

But Cheruiyot got even more help. When Cheruiyot made his lethal second surge at 14 miles, Merga made a suicidal bid to stay with him as long as possible. Although Cheruiyot was clearly the stronger man that day, Merga did not merely shadow Cheruiyot (a la Salazar shadowing Beardsley in 1982), but ran shoulder to shoulder with him until he exploded into a million tiny pieces.

Consider that Merga ultimately finished nearly three minutes behind Cheruiyot. That tells you he had no business engaging in the crazy escalation he engaged in with Cheruiyot from the time the surge began until his competitive self-immolation was realized at 24 miles. By essentially flushing his own race down the toilet (yes, he still finished third, but he almost certainly could have finished second had he run the last 10 miles more conservatively), Merga handed the possibility of a sub-2:06 performance to Cheruiyot on a silver platter.

And Cheruiyot, who actually tweaked a hamstring at eight or nine miles and ran in pain the rest of the way, had the talent, experience, desire and toughness to take it.