About 26 minutes into yesterday's men's push rim wheelchair race, Ernst Van Dyk was all by himself.
But the fact is there wasn't that much competition to begin with.
Van Dyk, the 35-year-old South African, won his division for the seventh time in eight years, coasting some three minutes ahead of a pack that started at 17 racers and ended with 11. Wakako Tsuchida took the women's event for the second straight year, leading all of four finishers.
The guys Van Dyk beat out are essentially the same guys he's competed against in the past four Boston Marathons: last year's winner, Masazumi Soejima, and perennial runner-up Krige Schabort. They're the best in the business, according to Van Dyk.
"The top three guys on this course are the top three guys in the world on this course," he said.
Van Dyk, who came through Copley Square in 1:26:49, is now tied for the most wins in the event, male or female.
"You've got to look at the quality of the field," Van Dyk said. "There were 20 of us. I do a marathon in Japan every year and there's 400 of us."
Schabort (1:30:39) was the first person to gripe about the size of the field, but Van Dyk agreed that, compared with other races, the field in Boston isn't as potent, especially considering that earlier this month he and Schabort scrambled in a seven-person pack at the finish line of the London Marathon.
Van Dyk and Schabort said they knew coming into Boston that only three or four racers had a real shot at winning, since most of the top competition couldn't afford the trip, and Boston's prize money ($15,000 for first place) wasn't the best incentive.
"We had 17 wheelchairs out there," Schabort said. "That's really a bad sign. The first time I competed here, I think we were almost between 50 and 75 athletes."
It's not that the talent isn't out there, Schabort said. Part of it, he said, is that they weren't invited, which he can't believe when he considers how early the New York City Marathon starts looking for racers, and part of it is that they can't afford the trip, considering the costs of equipment, the registration, and, in a lot of cases, the plane ticket.
"The New York City Marathon, they recruit way ahead of time," he said. "And they call athletes personally and tell them, 'We'll send you a ticket. We'll give you a hotel. We'll give you stipends.' "
Boston offers some of the same things, he said, but only to the top three competitors.
"They take good care of us here, the top three," Schabort said. "But you need to take care of at least 10 or 15 athletes to have a deeper field, and that way you'll create interest back into the race again."
Boston, Schabort said, used to be the race. Now it's losing the italics.
"Everyone wanted to do Boston," he said. "Now the other races are catching up and they're actually surpassing it. And that's what the trick will be. They need one person to go out and recruit good tier athletes."
Van Dyk has earned $95,000 from his Boston career, after picking up yesterday's $15,000 prize. That's money a lot of racers never see, he said.
"Without prize money, you're going to come out at a loss," he said. "I'm a professional athlete. I do the math and I figure out if I'm going to make a profit on the event or not. And if it's not profitable, I can't do it."
Guy Morse, executive director of the Boston Athletic Association, said the racers raise issues that need to be addressed.
"The BAA has always prided itself on our leadership role, especially in our wheelchair division, and I think they're right," Morse said. "There is room for some improvement and we'll make that a focus for the future.
"In terms of marketing and recruiting athletes, we need to step it up in order to compete against the other marathons that are inviting the runners."
Prize money and perks are good starting points, he said.
"What's standard is some expense money to make sure the athletes are able to get here without incurring cost, as well as a substantial prize purse," Morse said. "We will be looking at that to make sure that part of recruitment will include a more robust support for the athletes that we invite, whether that includes travel money, expense money, and prize money."
Morse said yesterday was the first time he'd caught wind of any displeasure.
"I think the athletes are expressing it in a way of respect," Morse said. "They know what the BAA stands for. They know what we have done with the wheelchair division in particular in the past, and I think they were gently reminding us that it may be time to refocus on that athlete-field development."
Tsuchida, 33, was easily a wire-to-wire winner in 1:48:32, almost eight minutes in front of runner-up Diane Roy (1:56:18).
"The race was almost decided in the first mile," said Cheri Blauwet, 27, who finished third.
"She's always seen Boston as a historic Marathon," said Tsuchida's translator, Kay Horiuchi. "That's one of the reasons why she came. She also believes that the top athletes are here."
Blauwet said the field may have been thin, but that racers still want to come to Boston.
"I think Boston could very easily increase its numbers," Blauwet said. "And I think with a little bit of planning and communicating for next year's race, we could have a field that's twice the size of this year's race."
Van Dyk agreed.
"This is the race," he said. "The TV coverage is better in this race. The course. The history. You have the backing of John Hancock and the BAA. This should be the event."
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org