Wilson Onsare was the fastest Kenyan in yesterday's 109th Boston Marathon.
In any other year, the 28-year-old native of Nairobi probably would have won this annual Patriots Day pilgrimage from Hopkinton to the Hub.
Given the Kenyans' dominance in this historic footrace -- they had won 13 of the previous 14 Marathons, including 10 in a row from 1991-2000 -- Onsare figured that if he could beat his compatriots in his Boston debut, he stood a strong chance of breaking the tape first.
But a funny thing happened on the way to Boylston Street.
Ethiopia's Hailu Negussie overtook defending champion Timothy Cherigat, of Kenya, at the 19-mile mark, never relinquished the lead, and wound up winning the race in 2 hours 11 minutes 45 seconds. Negussie outran runner-up Onsare (2:12:21) and another Kenyan, Benson Cherono (2:12:48), through the Newton hills and was somewhat surprised that they never mounted a challenge after that.
On a hot and sunny day, it was no shame for Onsare to finish second to Negussie, who snapped Kenya's streak of consecutive Boston victories at three.
"For me, finishing second was just like winning," he said.
Onsare, who joined the Kenyan Navy in 1997 and saved his first few months of salary to purchase a pair of sneakers and a stopwatch, recorded his best result in his fifth career marathon. He had placed third in the 2003 Paris Marathon in 2:06:47.
Running for the first time over the Boston course, Onsare was almost six minutes off his personal-best time.
"I was very happy that I improved my position," said Onsare, who posted thirds in his first three marathon attempts, including JoongAng Seoul in November 2003 and Japan's Lake Biwa Mainichi in March 2004. "The time, I can see, was not bad, according to the terrain of the course. So I'm very happy to be the first Kenyan as well."
Onsare was not prepared for the heartbreaking hills of Newton.
"I trained on tracks that were very flat," he said. "Normally, I run only the fast courses that are very flat. I knew something about it but I hadn't trained for it. I used the program that I had used before on the flat courses."
That proved to be a miscalculation.
"Instead of climbing the mountains," said Onsare, "I thought all I needed to train for the hills in the marathon was just a slope. But here it was very steep."
That led to some second-guessing when he followed the lead pack through the hills and wasn't sure whether it was time to press the pace. So Onsare did the prudent thing: He waited to make his move on his terms after the hills.
"That's why I had to think twice and go back [in the pack] to see how I can manage the run," said Onsare, who was not in the top 10 at the halfway mark. "Sometimes when you follow everybody, you don't know how everybody's prepared. That's why I decided to go back and then I braced to run by myself."
It was a move that ran counter to Onsare's initial strategy to go out with a group and to ride it to the finish. But around the 30-kilometer mark, Onsare decided to let the lead pack surge ahead of him.
"At that time, psychologically, it was very painful," said Onsare. "I was just following the group without knowing what everybody was doing, so I just decided to go back and to be very, very independent."
Relying on nothing more than his instinct and drive, Onsare mounted his charge on Negussie, making his biggest move between the 30- and 35-kilometer marks when he went from sixth to third. Onsare towed Cherono past fellow Kenyan Robert Cheruiyot at the 40K mark, holding on for second at the finish line. Cherono finished third, Cheruiyot fifth.
"Leading the group was like [winning] because it'll give me the chance to represent Kenya in the World Championships," said Onsare. "Normally, they select the people who finish 1-2-3 in the Boston Marathon. So, to me, this position was very, very important."