THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Bob Ryan

Women's race a bit of a drag for Goucher

With Salina Kosgei and Dire Tune battling in front of her, Kara Goucher is alone in third place. With Salina Kosgei and Dire Tune battling in front of her, Kara Goucher is alone in third place. (Globe Staff Photo / David L. Ryan)
By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / April 21, 2009
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The tears tell us all we need to know.

"I only enter a race if I expect to win," explained Kara Goucher.

Hence her sobbing when she fell into her husband Adam's arms after crossing the finish line. We had the closest women's finish in Boston Marathon history, but she wasn't a part of it. It can be argued that she caused it, but she wasn't a part of it. She finished third.

Third? An American? Pop the champagne. Start the parade.

Her Boston story is just beginning. This was her second marathon. Ever. She is a 30-year-old 5,000- and 10,000-meter practitioner out of Portland (the other one) who entered New York last November and finished third in her first attempt at the Big One. Now she has finished third in Boston, and she has the itch.

"Absolutely," she said. "I'll be back to New York and I'll be back in Boston as soon as possible."

The race was run at a glacial pace, Salina Kosgei's winning time of 2:32:16 being the slowest since Lisa Larsen-Weidenbach's 2:34:06 in 1985. There was always a cluster of leaders, gradually winnowing itself from 12 to eight to seven to six to four and, finally, to three: Kosgei, defending champion Dire Tune, and the lady carrying the hopes of a victory-starved American racing community.

That trio ran shoulder to shoulder from Kenmore Square to that right turn on Hereford Street. Along the way, Goucher dramatically shed the wide receiver gloves she was wearing, something she says she does when it's time to start the kick. But when she reached back for that kick, it was not there. Kosgei and Tune separated themselves from her, making for a spectacular sprint down Boylston Street, with Kosgei first surrendering the lead to her Ethiopian rival (think Yankees-Red Sox, we're told) before getting it back and hitting the tape one stride in front. Goucher was 5 seconds behind in 2:32:25, or almost 7 seconds slower than her time in New York last autumn.

But let us not confuse that overcrowded, leisurely, and mostly flat jaunt through the five boroughs with the grandfather of all modern marathons. The JV race is one thing, but this is where hearts are broken (and sometimes bodies: Tune collapsed two steps after the finish and was taken to Mass. General) and reputations are made.

You know what we say: If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.

"My first comment to [Goucher] after she crossed the finish line," said two-time champion Joan Benoit Samuelson, "was, 'You've experienced Boston now, you'll know what to do.' "

This is Boston, not East Podunk, not Marrakesh, and not New York. Nobody gets Boston right away.

"What she proved today was that she has the wheels," declared Bill Squires, the grand pooh-bah of all New England racing. "I was very impressed. She is still a marathon rookie. You need experience to run Boston, with its rolling terrain. This is the toughest course in the world, no doubt.

"What do Old John Kelley, Johnny Kelley, and Bill Rodgers all have in common?" Squires continued. "They were all dropouts in their first Boston Marathons.

"For her first time here, she did great," Squires said. "It's not like other courses. You've got 7 1/2 miles of treacherous hills that will really beat you up, and then you go flat. And when you talk about a kick, in road racing the kick may start with a mile to go. Here it starts with 4 miles to go."

"It was a great race, and she ran a great race," concurred Samuelson. "And she made the race. She really pushed it when it needed to be pushed. She got them back on pace."

It was, to be polite, a "tactical race." That is a running euphemism for "slow." As in S-L-O-W, slow.

The pace, the pace, the pace. It took on a life of its own.

It was, Kara Goucher said, a problem from the start.

For one thing, it did not separate the pretenders from the true contenders. Goucher felt the pack needed to "break up."

"It was too slow for all of us," she said.

But no one was able to do much about it, in part because of a persistent headwind, and in part Just Because. All Goucher knows is that, slow pace aside, she thought she was running her race. She has that track speed, and she was relying on her renowned kick to get the job done.

"Very honestly," she said, "I thought I'd have that kick. My legs felt 'poppy,' and my legs had lots of control. I can tell you I did not feel 'poppy' in New York. All day long I thought I'd have that extra gear, but it wasn't there."

Goucher knew that she and Ryan Hall were the best American hopes in a long, long time. But she denied feeling any inherent pressure to produce, falling back on a time-honored performer's credo.

"No one expects any more out of me than I do myself," she pointed out. "For people to have high hopes for me is, I think, a good thing."

Nerves did not do her in. She just happened to be up against a couple of experienced champions, and this just happened to be her first time on the Boston Marathon course. Next time, as Joan Benoit Samuelson said, she'll know.

"Oh, she's going to win it," insisted the greatest female distance runner America has ever produced. "I guarantee you she will come back and win this event."

Who wants to argue a racing matter with Joan Benoit Samuelson?

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of the Globe's 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.