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115th Boston Marathon

Kilel outduels Davila in sprint to the finish

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By Shira Springer
Globe Staff / April 19, 2011

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Making one last surge on Boylston Street, Desiree Davila heard chants of “U-S-A, U-S-A.’’ The sound propelled her toward the finish of the 115th Boston Marathon on legs that had little left.

She briefly took the lead with 250 meters remaining, raising hopes of an American winner in the women’s race, a feat not accomplished since Lisa Larsen-Weidenbach in 1985. But it was not to be, not on a day when ideal weather pushed the men’s field to the fastest marathon in history and the top five women to personal bests.

Kenyan Caroline Kilel outsprinted Davila down that final stretch, winning her Boston Marathon debut in 2 hours 22 minutes 36 seconds. Then she collapsed.

Davila finished second in 2:22:38, the fastest time by an American woman on the course. She bettered the mark of 2:22:43 set by Joan Benoit Samuelson in her then-world-record win in 1983. Davila’s time was the second fastest anywhere by an American, behind Deena Kastor’s 2:19:36 at the 2006 London Marathon.

Kenyan Sharon Cherop placed third in 2:22:42.

“I’m happy because I won a close one,’’ said Kilel. “I love Boston. I would love to run here many times, if they invite me. I feel very happy.’’

She plans to take her $150,000 prize money, buy a plot of land in Kenya, and build a house.

The finish-line emotions were more mixed for the 27-year-old Davila, who was extremely happy with how well she executed her race plan — setting a personal best by almost four minutes — but disappointed that it didn’t result in a win.

“I felt I could run with anyone today,’’ said Davila. “I know that’s a bold statement beforehand, especially when you look at the field. But I don’t think I would have placed where I did if I didn’t believe that coming in.

“As the race broke and my race plan was unfolding, it just went perfect for me, minus not winning.’’

The first strong push came from Davila. Turning right onto Hereford Street with about a half-mile remaining, she sped into the lead, eliciting a swell of cheers from spectators. She dropped Cherop, but not Kilel.

By the time Davila and Kilel started down Boylston Street, it appeared that Kilel had secured the win. The 30-year-old Kenyan, who has raced at the marathon distance for nine years, led by a few strides as Davila faded.

But Davila called on her painfully fatigued legs one more time. She caught Kilel with 250 meters to go and led for about 50 meters. As Davila tried to stay in front, the cheers and chants for the American who trains in Rochester Hills, Mich., reached a crescendo.

Then Kilel managed to stretch out her long legs and regain the advantage. And it was clear Davila had nothing more to give.

“The last 800 meters, my legs were fried,’’ said Davila. “I was basically thinking, ‘Just keep contact, keep contact.’

“You’re kind of bargaining with yourself, saying, ‘Well, I’ve made it pretty far, doing OK. People will be happy.’ Then, you’re like, ‘No, I’ve worked too damn hard. Don’t give up. Don’t give up.’

“It was a little bit of that. I’d regroup and catch up, regroup and catch up. I threw down everything I had.’’

By Cleveland Circle, Davila, Kilel, and Cherop had separated themselves from the field. It was there that Davila spotted her coach, Kevin Hanson, in the crowd. She smiled and nodded in his direction, signaling that she felt good, that she would contend until the very end.

“I knew no matter what happened she wasn’t going to get dropped,’’ said Hanson. “She might get beaten, but she was not going to get dropped because all of a sudden the wheels fall off.’’

The three-way duel continued down Beacon Street and into Kenmore Square. Hanson’s interpretation of Davila’s smile and nod proved accurate. The Kenyans could not drop her, though on a few occasions they stretched their advantage slightly. Davila skipped water stations to make sure she stayed with them.

In fact, for much of the approach to the Back Bay, Davila pushed the pace. She wanted to keep it honest, hoping the last stretch would come down to who could kick the fastest on dead legs. It was a strategy that clearly worked against Cherop.

“It was my first time running the Boston Marathon,’’ said Cherop. “Toward the last part, that was where my legs became tired. That’s why I managed to be No. 3. It was a great achievement for me.’’

Davila followed a race strategy that called for her to click off 5:30 miles through 20 miles. Her coaches believed that would put her in good shape for the final 6.2 miles. Anything much faster, said Hanson, and “she might risk crashing and burning.’’

Davila was unexpectedly aided in her pacing by Kim Smith, a New Zealander who lives in Providence. Smith went out fast and opened a gap on the field, stretching it to 50 seconds at the halfway point.

Smith, who arguably knew the course better than any other entrant in the women’s field, had a half-marathon split of 1:10:52, meaning she was on close to a 5:24 mile pace. So the pack kept pretty close to the 5:30 pace Davila planned on running anyway.

At 15 miles, Smith started experiencing leg cramps, and just before the 30-kilometer mark, the pack swallowed up, then dropped her. The New Zealander quit around 20 miles, the cramps too great for her to continue.

Davila gradually moved into the lead pack as it progressed through the Newton hills. She stayed strong up Heartbreak Hill, and to the surprise of many, she was leading and looking comfortable at 35 kilometers, speeding toward Cleveland Circle.

Davila, who trains with the Michigan-based Hansons-Brooks Distance Project, knew she was in position for a special day. She was confident that years of training would allow her to keep pace with the Kenyans.

“[Hansons-Brooks] has taken me from being an average runner and put me here,’’ said Davila. “The training group and training methods helped me develop. Everything’s been one step at a time. And knowing that I don’t have to be great tomorrow has allowed me to take the necessary steps to get here instead of just going for the fences and failing.

“Everything’s been small steps, and it’s working well.’’

Small steps until yesterday.

“You felt somewhat unappreciated,’’ said Hanson. “There were lots of areas where they said, ‘Yeah, but . . . Desi will run a solid race. She’ll do a good job, but she doesn’t have a chance to win.’

“She was in nobody’s mind. From that aspect, it was good for her to have this.’’

And it may be even better for American women’s distance running.

Samuelson, who first made the world pay attention to American women marathoners, said, “Desi’s put America back on the boards big-time.’’

Shira Springer can be reached at springer@globe.com.

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