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A name for himself

Cheruiyot ‘The Younger’ shatters course record in Marathon runaway

By John Powers
Globe Staff / April 20, 2010

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Robert “The Younger’’ Cheruiyot hasn’t been at this blistered business all that long, but he knew one thing. Stay close to the man in the golden singlet, and you’d have a chance at the laurel wreath.

“If somebody is champion, you try to go with him,’’ Cheruiyot figured. “So I try to come with [Deriba] Merga.’’

And when the gilded Ethiopian ran out of gas heading into the flats, the Kenyan kid dropped him, took on the clock, and turned in a performance for the ages, winning the 114th Boston Marathon yesterday by a minute and 31 seconds ahead of Ethiopia’s Tekeste Kebede and shattering the course record by a minute and 22 seconds in 2 hours, 5 minutes, 52 seconds.

Thus did one Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot, at 21 a decade younger, surpass the other on this historic course, becoming the youngest men’s champion since Wesleyan undergrad Amby Burfoot in 1968. Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot, who had set the previous mark of 2:07:14 here in 2006, has won here four times. Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot has run only four marathons in his life, and was fifth here last year, yet he established a world best for an unpaced race on a non-flat course, earning $150,000 for his victory plus a $25,000 bonus for the record.

“To be able to run under 2:06 — wow!’’ saluted Meb Keflezighi, who placed fifth behind country man Ryan Hall as the Americans tried valiantly to end a 27-year drought in a footrace they once owned. “Pretty incredible.’’

No US male has won here since Greg Meyer in 1983. Hall’s 2:08:41 yesterday was the fastest effort ever here by a Yank by six seconds and it would have won eight of the last 10 races.

“I thought that would be good enough to win today,’’ he said. “Most years it would have.’’

Nobody ever needed to go even close to a sub-2:06 to win here, and that clocking seemed unlikely yesterday as a quartering tailwind shifted to a crosswind and finally to a quartering headwind. But Cheruiyot and Merga kept pushing the pace, dropping in a sizzling mile here and there to loosen the herd. For the first 9 miles, the lead pack numbered at least 20, with Hall and Keflezighi, both wearing USA singlets, at or near the front.

Then Merga and Cheruiyot ripped off a 4:35 mile coming through Natick to shake things up. That was too fast for Hall’s taste, so he dropped 100 yards off and bided his time.

“I knew if I went, I might blow up,’’ he said.

But if Hall didn’t go, he might have been left eating sherbet at White Mountain Creamery while everybody else was dashing through Wellesley Hills.

So by the midway point, Hall had surged back to the front of a re-formed pack that was zipping along at a 1:03:27 pace. But by the time that group had come off the quick descent into Newton Lower Falls, a 4:42 mile had culled it to seven: Cheruiyot, Merga, Kebede, Keflezighi, Kenya’s Moses Kigen Kipkosgei and Gilbert Yegon, and Morocco’s Abderrahim Goumri.

Merga didn’t want even that much company, so he and Cheruiyot tossed in a 4:38 coming through Hell’s Alley over the Route 128 overpass. Not long after they’d made the firehouse turn heading into the Newton hills, the race was down to a duet, with the Americans decisively dropped.

“My hat’s off to those guys,’’ saluted Hall. “They were rolling. It was fun to be up with them for a while.’’

Now it was a holiday match race between the planet’s two most dominant marathon nations. Merga would lead by a few strides, then Cheruiyot. Coming off Heartbreak Hill at 21 miles, the men were side by side, pushing each other to a 4:36 split. Then, along the Haunted Mile where so many dreams have turned into nightmares, Cheruiyot stepped to the fore.

Two months ago back home, he had consulted Robert “The Elder’’ Cheruiyot about race strategy.

“He said if you stay in a group, it is very nice,’’ the Younger related. “When you see them going slowly, try to move. I was trying what Robert told me.’’

Now it was time to try what the circumstances told him. The hamstrings that Cheruiyot had fretted about were holding up well. The Ethiopian was tightening up, paying a late price for his early surges.

“I think those miles had a toll on me,’’ said the 29-year-old Merga, who was bidding to become the first man from his country to repeat as champion.

Last year, Merga was all by himself from Heartbreak to the finish. This time he knew he couldn’t win a 5K against a man eight years younger.

“This year was very difficult for me,’’ said Merga, who ended up third in 2:08:39. “Last year I ran very well, but not this year. It just happened. I don’t know the reason.’’

So Cheruiyot went for the knockout along Beacon Street and belted Merga with another 4:36. By Coolidge Corner, 2 miles from the finish, he was ahead of the champ by a minute and four seconds and on pace to crush the record. All he’d wanted to do was shave a dozen seconds or so off last year’s 2:10:06 effort.

“But I see I am going to break the course record,’’ Cheruiyot said. “So I push.’’

For finish-line denizens who’d become accustomed to seeing 2:07s and 2:08s on the clock on Patriots Day, the sight of a man sprinting down Boylston Street to a 2:05 was a delightful shock. And when did Robert K. Cheruiyot become so young, so short, so fast? The original version was supposed to have been here, but a hip injury forced him to withdraw last month. The sequel proved to be even better.

“Next year,’’ mused Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot, “we can be here together.’’

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.

Correction: Because of an editing error, a caption in the original version of this story misstated how long it took Robert K. Cheruiyot, the winner of the Boston Marathon, to run the race. He set a new course record with a time of 2:05:52.