Kenyan marathoners dominate Boston and the world

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.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

“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.

“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

* Martin Lel: 3 firsts, 3 seconds.

* Swept podium in 2011

* Eight runner-up finishes.

New York (November): 5 of 12 titles

* Eight runner-up finishes.

* Eight third-place showings.

* Race cancelled in 2012 (hurricane)

IAAF world championships (biennial): 3 of 6 titles

* Two straight wins by Abel Kirui

* Runner-up in 2009, 2011

Olympics (quadrennial): 1 of 4 titles

* Sammy Wanjiru won in 2008

* Abel Kirui second in 2012