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Fast break

Experience guides Cheruiyot to record run and second win

Robert Cheruiyot of Kenya put his familiarity with the course to good use and came from behind to break the finish banner in record Boston time, rounded up to an official 2:07:14.
Robert Cheruiyot of Kenya put his familiarity with the course to good use and came from behind to break the finish banner in record Boston time, rounded up to an official 2:07:14. (Globe Staff Photo / David L. Ryan)

Robert Cheruiyot had been up and down this bumpy road before, often enough to know that the graveyard is full of runners who have led this footrace at Woodland. ''A marathon is a long distance," he said. ''Twenty-six miles is a big distance."

So Cheruiyot let Kenyan countryman Benjamin Maiyo dash into the Newton hills alone yesterday afternoon, then calmly caught him, broke him on Heartbreak Hill, and went on to win his second Boston Marathon in a course-record 2 hours 7 minutes 14 seconds on a cool and cloudy day that was ideal for an assault on the clock.

''When I was at 40 kilometers [24.86 miles], I think maybe I can run 2:06," said the 27-year-old Cheruiyot, who shaved one second off Cosmas Ndeti's 1994 mark while leaving Maiyo 1:07 behind. ''But [training partner/world record-holder] Paul Tergat told me: 'Don't run too fast, you only need to win.' "

After watching Ethiopia's Hailu Negussie (a midpoint dropout yesterday) win the laurel wreath last year, the Kenyans were determined to regain the crown that they've now won 14 times in 16 years. This time, though, their prime pursuers were Americans, who finished a remarkable 3-4-5 with Meb Keflezighi (2:09:56), Brian Sell (2:10:55), and Alan Culpepper (2:11:02) and placed six runners in the top 11, three of them from the Detroit-based Hansons-Brooks club.

That hadn't happened since 1985, the year before the Boston Athletic Association began awarding prize money, when a 2:20 was good for a spot in the top three.

''I think it was very well done," said Keflezighi, whose placement was the best by a domestic runner since Gary Tuttle finished second to Great Britain's Geoff Smith 21 years ago. ''It was a tremendous effort by all of us."

The Yanks have had a resurgence during the last few years, and they were determined to come out strong here yesterday. ''I really thought I had a good chance at winning this," said Keflezighi, who won the Olympic silver medal in Athens and twice placed in the top three in New York.

No US runner has conquered Boston since Greg Meyer in 1983, but until they headed into the hills, Keflezighi was still in the chase with Maiyo and Ethiopia's Deriba Merga, who'd left the crowd behind before they even hit the midway point in Wellesley.

Once the pack broke up in Natick, the contenders had a choice. Stay up with Maiyo, a speed racer who finished second on Chicago's drag strip last autumn, or risk being left behind.

''It's a delicate balance," said Culpepper, who decided to stay in the second rank and pick off stragglers, as he did last year. ''Because you don't want the race to go without you."

The pace, though, was insanely fast. At 12 miles, the leaders were on target for a 2:05:36 finish, once thought to be achievable only by trolley.

''I do not follow the guys, because I know the race is too fast," said Cheruiyot, who won this race in 2003 and had been counseled on tactics by countryman Moses Tanui, the 1996 and '98 victor.

At 15 miles, just before the quick descent into Newton Lower Falls, the projected time was 2:05:30, with Maiyo two seconds ahead.

''Wow," Keflezighi told himself. ''If we keep this up, I don't know what we are going to do on Heartbreak Hill."

There was still plenty of hardtop plus the Newton trimountain ahead, and Cheruiyot, who was running here for the fourth time, knew every pothole by heart. ''I have experience here," he said.

So Cheruiyot waited until the firehouse turn, then gobbled up Keflezighi. Then he closed the eight-second gap on Maiyo.

''We both played into Cheruiyot's hands," Keflezighi acknowledged.

Maiyo, a Boston rookie running on terra incognita, was hoping that his countryman would play navigator for a while and beckoned to Cheruiyot to move to the front. ''I was trying to tell Robert to assist me in pacing," he said, ''but Robert refused."

Cheruiyot didn't need a road map and he didn't need a companion. Once he loped into the lead going up Heartbreak Hill, the race was over.

''I was thinking that he was going to slow down maybe," said Maiyo, ''but he was very strong."

Cheruiyot's only opponent now was the clock, and he glanced several times at his wristwatch along the Brighton flats, gauging time and distance. His personal best, set in Milan four years ago, was 2:08:59. Bettering that wouldn't be a problem. If Cheruiyot pushed for 2:06-plus, he risked blowing up. But Ndeti's 2:07:15, set on a day with a stiff tailwind, was still within reach.

When Cheruiyot made the final turn off of Hereford Street and onto Boylston, he knew he had a shot.

''I see that the clock is at 2:07 and I say, 'I can make it,' " he said.

So he did, by one click, which was worth a $25,000 bonus to go along with the $100,000 winner's purse and 25 points in the new World Marathon Majors Series, which continues next weekend in London.

Who'll remember that yesterday's winner was 14 seconds behind in Wellesley Hills?

''When Moses was running, the guys in the front were very far," Robert Cheruiyot observed. ''But Moses caught them, you see."

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