“There is no sparring in Boston; it’s where racers go to battle,” quoth American road warrior Des Linden, who threw down with honor and courage in yesterday’s Boston Marathon. The key word in her statement is “racers,” as opposed to runners.

Runners compete against the clock. It’s all about who can get from start to finish in the shortest amount of time. In marathons where time is everything—the Berlin Marathon comes to mind—competitors are felled, one by one, by the pace, the inexorable ticking seconds, and even the winner seems like a loser if he fails to achieve a fast time or a world record.

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Racers want to take each other on, personally. They want to probe for a fellow racer’s weak spot, and then press on it. Racers want to mix it up, mess with their opponent’s head, and whip him, physically and mentally. They want to be the best; they want to win. There’s drama in that, for competitors and spectators alike, and no one loses a well-fought battle.

Certainly, Boston has the prestige to lure first rate gladiators, but the most important ingredient in their bare-knuckled, mano a mano arena is that it’s undiluted by accessory rabbits, hired guns who are paid to tow the elite field at a certain pace through 30 kilometers or so, when their job is done. No no. None of that at Boston. From the starter’s gun, it’s every racer for herself or himself. Here are some exciting things that happened between Hopkinton and Beantown that you wouldn’t find in any other 26.2-mile stretch.

  1. Lots of Americans in the field. That seems like a no-brainer, Boston being on American soil, but it isn’t. The New York Marathon fancies itself quite cosmopolitan, like the city, and recruits internationally with vigor. Chicago, one of the other World Marathon Majors (along with Boston, New York, London, Tokyo, and Berlin), is sort of a record whore, and thus recruits people most likely to break a record. Los Angeles gets whoever will give their marathon some legitimacy. It goes without saying that Americans Adrianna Nelson (2:28 PR), Amy Craggs (2:27 PR), Jeff Eggleston (2:10), Nick Arciniaga (2:11), Fernando Cabada (2:11), and Matt Tegenkamp (2:12) would have been paying their own way to run at London or Tokyo, where there’s not much interest if you haven’t run sub-2:06 (men) or faster than 2:21 (women). The Boston Marathon organizers know that their lack of pacers and hilly, record-ineligible (because it;s point to point) course will level the playing field enough that nearly 40-yerar-old Meb Keflezighi can punch higher than his 2:08 PR against guys ten years and four minutes ahead of him. Bahston is the quintessential American race, and they do right by US racers. You’ll never see more home boys ‘n girls than in this race.
  2. Lots of Americans on the tele. Several tweets from the guys at Flotrack said it all for American marathon fans—Meb and Des Linden, leading late in the race!

And, with the comment, Is this real life?!!, the US boy wonder, Dathan Ritzenhein, who rose from the dead at halfway to blast to the lead and make us all sing Yankee Doodle Dandy...


Had this been London or Berlin or Chicago, the cameras would have been on the 2:04 guys and sub-2:20 lassies, who, to run those kind of times, would have separated themselves from the likes of Meb and Ritzenhein and Amy Cragg by the first 5K. But whoop whoop, there we were, as pleased as Nick Arciniaga's mom to see him on the TV, mixing it up in the lead pack through about 15K. And on the women's side, to see Craggs, Linden and Flanagan in the lead pack, game faces on, until the fat lady sung in Linden's case—this was good stuff.

  1. Know the enemy. Because there are no pacers towing the leaders at a certain predetermined pace, it’s every racer for himself. Tsegay and Tola and Desisa, et al, who’ve run under 2:06 on a drag strip, only needed to run fast enough to win. But how fast is that? Best to keep your enemy close, look over at them, judge their level of fatigue, judge their ability to hurt, test them with surges. That’s racing. And with the pack-thinning Newton hills looming on the horizon, Kenyan and Ethiopian speedsters were forced into a tactical race. Result? Times are out the window, surging and on-the-fly strategizing is in.
  2. Insane, stupid, brilliant, heartbreaking moves. Ritzenhein covered 10K to 15K in 15:35 while the rest of the lead pack did so in about 15:15. That left him a smear in the background. Had the pack been running a faster, less tactical pace, that would have been the end of Dathan Ritzenhein. But what’s this? When the camera, that had broken away to the wheelchair race came back, we found that Ritz has seen God, dropped a 15:23 next 5K (compared to about 15:30 for the other 11 guys in the pack) and was looking pure money out in front of everyone. And with Meb’s surprise breakaway last year still fresh in everyone’s mind, all racers were paying attention. Sidelong glances, tension—should they go with him? Will he fade back?
  3. Lotta people still at the party in the wee hours. Credit can be given to Boston organizers in that they recruited a very deep field of capable racers with no clear superstar. At 35K (a marathon is 42K, and the serious stuff starts at 30K), the men’s pack still had eight members and the women’s nine. Many marathons have been whittled to two or even one survivor by that point. More people in the mix means more possibilities, more drama. On the women’s side, you had the up-and-comer Mare Dibaba with the fastest PR coming in (2:19:52), the perennial bridesmaid Buzunesh Deba (2:19:59), the relentless grinder Des Linden (2:22) trying to dull their kicks before the final two miles, some Boston veterans (Sharon Cherop and Caroline Kilel), Aberu Kebede who posted some fancy footwork (2:20) on a pancake flat course with pacers, Joyce Chepkirui who’s blazed a half-marathon but hasn’t, yet, put together the full enchilada, and some mystery women, like Caroline Rotich, with a lot of fourth place finishes and a 2:23 from Chicago three years ago. What’s going to happen? Who’s ready?
  4. A 2:04 guy crosses the line in 2:09, pedestrian by today’s standards, and it’s thrilling. In true warrior fashion, Desisa took on his competitors one by one, measuring their skill against his, monitoring the damage from the hills and the toll the headwind exacted, and decided at about 24 miles to lay his cards down. He didn’t just run faster than everyone else, he raced courageously and smart. With every surge covered and hill conquered, he earned his victory. In Boston, it’s never a foregone conclusion.
  5. That Caroline Rotich was even in a position to go head-to-head with Mare Dibaba. And did! Dibaba (not related to the very fast Genzebe, Tirunesh and Ejegayehu Dibabas) is a quick closer and, in her previous marathons, has not had much company in the final miles. Had this been the flat and fast Dubai Marathon, for example, she would have been clear of most competitors by 22 miles. Caroline Rotich would have been dispatched to a blistering pace earlier. But she wasn’t. Dibaba thinned the crowd once at about 21 miles with a short burst of speed but Linden, Deba and Rotich were still there. Again in the 24th mile, Dibaba hit the gas. Deba responded, as expected, but so did Rotich. Still though, Dibaba, and spectators, saw Deba as the main threat, until she wasn’t. Known to have a devastating kick, the 2:19 Dibaba tried one, two, three, four times to break the unheralded 2:23 Rotich in a full-on sprint down Boylston. They raced, they battled, and the underdog prevailed—Rotich in 2:24:55; Dibaba 2:24:59. Though only four seconds separated them, there have been five closer women’s finishes at Boston.

photo credit: Getty Images