It was a beach day in April, when the scorching skies demanded prudence and a rash move at the wrong time was a ticket to the medical tent and an IV tube. A perfect afternoon, Timothy Cherigat decided, to throw down a challenge to his rivals heading into the hills. Damn the thermometer, full speed ahead.
And so, on a brutal afternoon when the mercury soared to 85 degrees with nary a cooling breeze, the 27-year-old Kenyan ran away from the last two victors (who both dropped out) and 20,000 other drained pursuers yesterday to become the Boston Marathon's 108th champion and the 12th from his country in 13 years.
"Maybe I could have run faster,'' mused Cherigat, whose winning time (2 hours 10 minutes 37 seconds) was the slowest since 1991 and only 76th on the all-time list. "But I can't speak of that, because that's what the weather was today.''
It was the hottest marathon day since 1987, when the temperature was in the mid-to-upper 80s with humidity above 95 percent and Toshihiko Seko won in 2:11:50. "Last year I ran in Beirut,'' said Joshua Kipkemboi, a 45-year-old Kenyan who finished seventh. "But it was not this hot.''
Given the conditions, what Cherigat achieved was remarkable. After shaking countryman and Boston rookie Robert Cheboror going up Heartbreak Hill, he ran the final 5 miles alone, rarely bothering to glance over his shoulder. Anybody who was going to catch him was going to have to borrow a police motorcycle. "I knew that the move I made, when I made it, would drive me to the finish line," said Cherigat, whose margin (1:12) was the largest since Ibrahim Hussein outran Joaquim Pinheiro by 2:25 in 1992. "I knew how the guys were, so I moved without much trouble."
The guys, the few of them who were still left by the time they reached the Newton hills, were hoping merely to get to Copley Square and dive into an ice bath.
It was a day when the contenders were separated from the pretenders early on. The gap between first and fifth place (6:53) was the biggest since 1985. Between first and 10th, it was the biggest (12:08) since Aurele Vandendriessche's course-record jaunt in 1963 that left two Olympic champions walking with hands on hips.
Once the top guns caught up with leaders Stephen Kiogora and Jackson Kipng'ok after 8 pragmatic (i.e. leisurely) miles, the pack quickly dwindled to eight: Cherigat, Cheboror, Kiogora, defending champion Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot, previous winner Rodgers Rop, last year's runner-up Benjamin Kosgei Kimutai, New York victor Martin Lel, and Ethiopia's Hailu Negussie.
By Wellesley Hills, after the midway point, there was no one else in sight. Maybe everybody had paused at the White Mountain Creamery for a vat of lime rickeys.
When the pack got to Newton Lower Falls and Hell's Alley, where the real racing begins, it was down to six. Shortly after the firehouse turn, the entry to the hills, Cherigat and Rop were alone in front.
Cheruiyot, who began his push there last year, already was well out of contention. Soon, too, was Rop, who dropped out along the flats.
"I was really surprised," said Cherigat, who'd come to ruin last year trying to answer Cheruiyot's surge atop Heartbreak and finished fourth. "I thought he was a great challenge today. But he had dropped off, and I had to take advantage."
Now it was a two-man race, and Cherigat, who'd run Boston twice before and finished third in last fall's BAA half-marathon, had the advantage. He knew what was up ahead: the three hills, the muscle-searing plunge down to Lake Street and the "Haunted Mile" just beyond. Cheboror did not.
"I was afraid to go forward," Cheboror said, "because I didn't know the course."
So Cherigat, arms pumping and legs flying, threw in a punishing 4:42 mile heading toward Heartbreak, the third-fastest split of the day, and opened a 19-second lead.
It might as well have been five minutes.
"When I fell behind," said Cheboror, who finished in 2:11:49, nearly two minutes ahead of Lel, "it was too hard to catch up."
That was Cherigat's plan. His previous two attempts (he was 10th in 2001) had left him out of gas along Commonwealth Avenue's ups and downs.
This time, he trained for the hills and attacked them with a water bottle in each hand.
"I had to ensure that this year I came to Heartbreak Hill strong," Cherigat said, "so I could be able to race faster toward the finish."
Once he passed the cemetery before Cleveland Circle, Cherigat had turned the world's oldest annual marathon into a fun run. At Coolidge Corner, 2 miles from the finish, his lead was nearly a minute. By Kenmore Square, Cherigat might as well have been Pheidippides taking the original marathon victory lap.
It was an Athenian kind of day -- hilly and hot. A great tuneup for this summer's Olympics in the country that invented this race. But yesterday's laurel winner won't be going; the Kenyans picked their five-ringed runners last month.
"You must respect the team that has been chosen," said Cherigat, who left here with an $80,000 consolation prize. "Maybe I wait for my time, and it will come."