BOSTON — Thirty years ago, the Boston Marathon entered the 20th century, forced to join the ranks of other races like the New York City Marathon by offering prize money in addition to glory and a laurel wreath to its winners. The result was immediate, Rob de Castella shaving more than a minute off the course record with his 2:07:51 winning time, a mark that has been lowered over the intervening three decades by almost five minutes, currently standing at Geoffrey Mutai’s wind-aided 2:03:02 from 2011.
That mark was in no danger of being threatened this year due to the combination of a less-than-stellar field and balmy spring temperatures in the mid- to upper-60s. But no one expected Lemi Berhanu Hayle’s winning time of 2:12:45, the slowest mark of the professional era aside from the Nor’easter year of 2007.
A large pack of nearly two dozen men dawdled through the opening miles in the 5-minute range, hitting halfway in 1:06:43. That in itself did not foretell a slow finish, as negative splits and fast racing over the second half, in spite of the Newton Hills it contains, has been as much the rule as the exception in recent years.
RELATED: Boston Marathon Top-20 Finishers
But this time only Ethiopia’s Lelissa Desisa, the winner here in 2013 and 2015, seemed interested in pushing the pace, interjecting a 4:33 16th mile, instantly whittling the pack down to just he and his 21-year-old countryman Hayle. The pair clipped off a few more sub-5-minute miles, opening a gap that grew to 39 seconds, looking like they were out for a training run on the outskirts of Addis Ababa.
Desisa made his bid for a Boston hat trick coming down Beacon Street, but Hayle covered that move, then countered with one of his own as they passed Fenway Park. And in that instant, the race was over, the lead growing to 5, 10, 15 meters and Desisa slowing his turnover and beginning to look back to defend his position. Desisa will have to try to continue his trend of winning Boston in odd-numbered years, settling for the runner-up spot this time, 47 second behind Hayle.
Yemeni Adhane Tsegay, whose wife Tirfi Tsegaye finished second in the women’s race, rounded out the top three in 2:14:02 for an Ethiopian sweep of the podium, a first for that country and the first national sweep of the podium since Kenya turned the trick in 2012.
Hayle, who set his PR of 2:04:33 at Dubai in January, where he finished second, came to Boston completely focused on place rather than time. “Running fast in Dubai took a lot of effort,” he said. “I was here to win, not run fast. I was happy to take it easy and watch everyone else.
“At 5K everyone looked good, like they could be dangerous,” he continued. “But when Desisa pushed, I knew he was the person to beat.”
“The pace was slow though 20K so I decided to go,” said Desisa. “I tried to win at 32K but I had a little problem with my left leg and when Lemi pulled away I knew he would be successful.”
Asked if they thought their performances here would help or hurt their chances of being selected for the Ethiopian marathon squad for Rio, both men were unsure. “We will have to wait and see what performances come out of London next week,” said Hayle. “I have already shown I can run fast [in Dubai] and today I showed I can win, so I hope so.”
With almost all the top Americans rendered hors de combat by their participation in the U.S. Olympic Trials in February, there was not much focus on or expectations for any kind of showing by them here, but Zach Hine surprised everyone by placing 10th in 2:21:57.
Ian Burrell (13th, 2:22:22) and over-40 masters division champion Clint Wells (17th, 2:24:55) were the other U.S. men among the top 20 finishers.
“I was 16th here in 2011 and I’ve always wanted to come back, but things just haven’t worked out,” Hine said.
Forced to drop out of the Trials due to cramping, his run here today was particularly sweet for the South Hadley, Mass., native now living in Dallas, where he works full time as an engineer in the oil industry.
“I never thought I’d be in the top 10 here,” he said. “I was hoping for top 20. I’ve been watching this race since I was a little kid. I had a lot family and friends out there on the course, and I heard people calling my name, even though it wasn’t on my bib. My phone’s been blowing up with texts and voicemails since I finished, and my sister finished with a PR, so it’s been a pretty good day for me.”
And in spite of times that seemed like they were 30 years old, it wasn’t too bad for the top three men, either.