“There were athletes I would have liked to recruit but it was hard to pry them off the track,” recalls Carey Pinkowski, who has been Chicago’s race director since 1990. “I still think that they were kind of learning the marathon. But as the track opportunity diminished, they started turning to the marathon. They all saw much more opportunity in the marathon and were forgoing the track.”
Although the Kenyans still dominate in steeplechase, where they’ve claimed the last eight Olympic gold medals, they haven’t won the 5,000 meters since 1988 or the 10,000 since 1968. “There’s definitely a luring for many of their runners to run on the roads earlier in their careers because there’s an opportunity to win bigger sums,” says runners’ agent Ray Flynn. “They’re trying to get to the monetary side quicker. Imagine what even $100,000 is worth in their country as opposed to here.”
Although Joseph Nzau was the first Kenyan to claim a major when he won Chicago in 1983, it took nearly two decades for the mass migration from the Rift Valley to the roads to reach full flow.
“If you go back 15 years the Mexicans, the Spaniards, the Portuguese and the Moroccans were pretty strong and quite well-represented in the top 50 in the world,” says Dave Bedford, the longtime London race director who still assembles the elite field.
Between 1994 and 2001, athletes from those four countries collected every London title. Since Khalid Khannouchi, the Moroccan-born American runner, won in 2002, the Kenyans have claimed eight races and placed four men in the top seven last year. So deep and dominant have they been that it’s a challenge for race directors to put together a geographically diverse field.
“Historically I took and still take the view that we want the event to look like an international event as opposed to the African championships,” says Bedford. “Having said that, it is very difficult not to have past winners, not to have world champions, not to have Olympic medalists and not to have world record-holders in your race.” London has all of them in this month’s field and a half-dozen of them — Makau, Mutai, Abel Kirui, Wilson Kipsang, Emmanuel Mutai and Martin Lel — are Kenyans.
Boston, which has had only two non-African winners since Hussein (Italy’s Gelindo Bordin in 1990 and South Korea’s Lee Bong-Ju in 2001) and no American since Greg Meyer in 1983, recruits the fastest contenders available. If that means most of them are Kenyan, so be it.
“The attitude of the BAA has been to focus on excellence,” says Grilk. “To be slogan-like about it, we shoot the gun and let ’em run. That said, it is nice to have some diversity in the field and to provide the encouragement and the opportunity to others to do what the Kenyans have done. There’s no active effort to reduce the Kenyan field but it is nice to have a broad array of countries represented, the United States not least among them.”
Boston had all three members of last year’s Olympic squad signed up, but Keflezighi and Hall both withdrew with injuries and on Wednesday Abdi Abdirahman joined them on the sidelines with the flu, leaving Jason Hartmann, fourth here last year, as the top domestic contender. Ethiopia’s Deriba Merga, who won in 2009, will be accompanied by Gebremariam, the former New York champion who was third here in 2011, and three other countrymen.
But if history holds, Monday’s victor will be a Kenyan and he will return home a man forever changed.
“If you win in Boston people will say that guy, he won Boston, even after 30 years,” says Cheruiyot, who often was confused with four-time victor Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot until he won his own laurel wreath. “It is not like other races.”
How Kenyans have fared around the world
Boston is hardly the only course at which Kenyan runners have owned the podium. Since 2000, Kenyan men have won each of the World Marathon Majors at least five times, and prevailed in the marathon at global events such as the IAAF World Championships and the Olympics. (Note: the Tokyo Marathon didn’t officially become a major until this February – and Kenya swept the top three men’s placements in that race as well).
Boston (April): 10 of 13 titles
* Seven different winners.
* Nine runner-up finishes.
* Eight third-place showings.
Chicago (October): 10 of 13 titles
* Two repeat winners.
* Nine-year run ended in 2012.
* Daniel Njenga: 3 seconds, 3 thirds.
Berlin (September): 9 of 13 titles
* Eight different winners.
* Took 30 of 39 podium spots.
* Swept top 9 spots in 2012
London (April): 8 of 13 titles Continued...