For the first half-century, the world’s most renowned road race essentially was the New England Holiday Invitational with Canadian neighbors welcome to drop in.
“When I was growing up the Boston Marathon was Clarence DeMar and old John Kelley and a couple of Finns and Japanese,” recalls Amby Burfoot, the Connecticut native who won the race in 1968.
When Bill Rodgers won his four crowns between 1975 and 1980, he outran a Minnesotan, a Texan, a Japanese and an Italian. But that was when the victor ran for love because victory brought no money.
“If there was a trophy I don’t have it,” says Burfoot, who’ll mark the 45th anniversary of his triumph by running in Monday morning’s 117th edition. “I got a medal, a laurel wreath and the infamous bowl of beef stew — and I was a vegetarian.”
All that changed in 1986 when new sponsor John Hancock offered prize money for the first time. Two years later, competitors from nine African countries turned up in Hopkinton and Kenya’s Ibrahim Hussein nipped Tanzania’s Juma Ikangaa by one second at the finish. That was the beginning of what jokingly, but not entirely inaccurately, has been called the Kenyan Intramural Championships.
A quarter-century after Hussein’s breakthrough victory, he and his countrymen have won here 20 times and are favored again this year with defending champion Wesley Korir and former victor Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot at the head of the elite pack.
The Kenyan impact on both the Boston race and global marathoning has been profound. Since 2000 alone, runners from that East African land have won 10 times here, 10 times in Chicago, eight times in London, nine times in Berlin and five times in New York as well as the last three world titles and four Olympic medals, including silver and bronze in London.
Last year Kenyans won 31 of the 43 IAAF-label marathons, including three of the four contested majors, and only two of them won more than one. And while their Ethiopian neighbors rapidly have been catching up, the Kenyans still set the planetary standard, holding both the official (2 hours, 3 minutes, 38 seconds, Patrick Makau) and unofficial (2:03:02, Geoffrey Mutai) world records.
“Their most notable impact has been to raise the standards of performance to give everybody else something to shoot at,” says Boston Athletic Association executive director Tom Grilk. “They made a new level of excellence possible. If they can do it maybe other people can do it. It’s been like watching the four-minute mile barrier fall. When things suddenly fall into the realm of the possible, other people do it.”
Most prominently the Ethiopians, who boasted a dozen of the world’s top 20 last year and won the Chicago and Rotterdam races that once were Kenyan monopolies.
“I think we are catching them now,” says Gebre Gebremariam, who won New York in 2010, was third here two years ago and will be on the line again Monday. “We will maybe reach them in a short time.”
While the Americans aren’t yet running shoulder-to-shoulder with the Kenyans, they’ve been pushed to elevate their game. Meb Keflezighi, who earned a silver medal in the 2004 Olympics, placed fourth last summer in London, the top non-African finisher. And Ryan Hall set the American record (2:04:58 seconds) here two years ago. What was telling, though, was that Hall came fourth, nearly two minutes behind Mutai’s record effort.
“It’s been very discouraging for athletes from other countries and that includes the US,” observes Burfoot, now Runner’s World’s Editor-at-Large. “You’re looking at a tidal wave of East Africans and it’s not easy to withstand the pounding.”
The sheer number of world-class Kenyans is daunting. Last year 68 of them ranked among the top 100 and more than 270 of them had bettered the Olympic qualifying time of 2:15.
“In my generation everybody wanted to ‘Be Like Mike,’ says Keflezighi, who was the top hope to end a 30-year domestic drought in Boston until he withdrew last week after a calf injury truncated his training. “For Kenyans, everybody wants to be like Mutai and have the lifestyle that he has.”
In a country where the annual per capita income is $1,800, winning even one major marathon sets up the victor and his family for life and gives them temporal immortality.
“My name now is not Robert,” says Cheruiyot, who shattered the course record here three years ago. “They call me Boston.”
In the days before prize money, Kenyan distance runners were content to compete on the track and in cross-country.
“I remember Michael Musyoki [the 1984 Olympic bronze medalist at 10,000 meters] called me when he was going to run in his first marathon and he was afraid of it,” says Rodgers. But during the past decade the lure of six-figure paydays has brought hundreds of Kenyans to the marathon.Continued...