Ethiopian 21-year-old Lemi Berhanu Hayle defeats defending champion Lelisa Desisa in memorable battle
By James O’Brien
Near perfect conditions greeted the 27,491 runners who lined up in Hopkinton for the 120th running of the Boston Marathon: temperatures in the low ‘60s; no humidity; a gentle, cooling breeze. Ethiopia’s Lemi Berhanu Hayle took supreme advantage of the crystal clear day, running away from defending champion Lelisa Desisa in grand style before breaking the tape in 2:12:45. Meandering through the early miles, the large pack was full of the world’s best. Joining Hayle and Desisa were 2012 champion Wesley Korir of Kenya and last year’s runner-up Yemane Adhane Tsegay of Ethiopia, among others. There was more than enough firepower to burn up the roads out of Hopkinton.
Japan’s Shingo Igarashi led through the opening miles on a pace faster than his 2:13:14 personal best. But even that, for the field of thoroughbreds, was barely enough to warrant them taking off their sweats. It did, however, set the stage for an intriguing competition.
By four miles (20:07), Igarashi still held his pole position. But by five miles (25:19), his day was done. The cumbersome lead pack swallowed him whole and, though he hung on for the next mile or so, he ultimately faded to 19th in 2:26:24. From this point onward, it was all about the power of East Africa, especially Hayle and Desisa. “I was scared of Desisa,” commented Hayle after the race. “I only watched what he did.”
If Desisa did nothing, so did Hayle. It seemed as if the field was keying off of the defending champion. “I came only to win the race,” Hayle continued, “not to run fast.”
If anyone could have been deemed to be the aggressor in the early miles, it would have been Deribe Robi from Ethiopia. Others would drift up and back, occasionally injecting an increase in tempo. But it would quickly dissipate, leaving Robi, a 2:05:58 performer from Eindhoven last year, back in the lead and controlling the charge.
The gorgeous sunny day brought hordes of spectators to the course, the throngs lining the streets in Natick and Wellesley and Newton. Halfway was passed in 1:06:43, and everybody watched Desisa, who was watching everybody else in the 17-man pack.
When the first significant move came, it was from Desisa himself. The gang had moseyed through 15 miles in 1:16:43 (an average of 5:07 per mile, to that point) and were passing 25K when the defending champion injected a surge that immediately broke open the pack and served notice that the race had begun. Hayle covered immediately, as did Tsegay, but it was difficult to discern if this was indeed a move or merely a stretching of the legs. The answer came quickly. As the leaders surged down the broad sweep towards Newton Lower Falls, Desisa maintained his pressure, not relenting even as he began to negotiate the hills of Newton. Boston lore has it that there are three hills in Newton, Heartbreak being the last and most celebrated. One could make a strong case, however, for there being four hills, the first being the lengthy, quad-sapping climb before the right turn at the Newton Firehouse.
Making the right turn by the firehouse, Desisa remained in control, even though Hayle was square on his shoulder. The perfect spectating weather brought hundreds of thousands of enthusiastic fans onto the course, and as they roared their encouragement, Desisa and Hayle hammered along the broad expanses towards Cleveland Circle, swinging left onto Beacon Street and the de facto 3.5 mile home straight. The deafening crowds were indicative of the intensity, though you could hardly see it in the implacability of the leaders. Desisa pushed, Hayle hung close, the two even exchanging water at one point. That situation couldn’t last for long, and it didn’t. Having covered the mile between 23 and 24 in 4:56, closing in on 40K (2:05:58) Hayle injected a surge just as Desisa slowed for a water table.
It was a text-book move and the change was immediate. Within a handful of strides, Hayle had gained two, then ten, then 20 meters, and the deal was done. As Desisa stole painful glances over his shoulder to ascertain who might be closing, Hayle roared onward, reaching 25 miles in 2:06:39 with eight seconds in hand. It’s never over ‘til it’s over, but this one was over.
“I didn’t believe it until the finish line,” asserted Hayle, who’d break the finish tape in 2:12:45 after celebrating on Boylston Street. “I thought that somebody would still take over. I’m so very happy. I’ve won some races before this one, but today feels like my birthday.”
“The Boston Marathon is different to any other race,” stated Desisa. “The pace was very slow, but there was a wind if you went in front. There are no pacemakers, so if an athlete goes to the front, it’s hard to know how it will go.”
Desisa’s runner-up time was 2:13:32, followed by Tsegay in 2:14:02, who prevailed in a Boylston Street tussle with 2012 winner Wesley Korir (fourth in 2:14:05).
The first American to finish was 28 year-old Zachary Hine, originally from Massachusetts but now living in Dallas, TX. Hine placed tenth in a time of 2:21:37. “My goal was to run conservative and have a strong last 10K,” he explained. “I was hoping for top 20. I’m excited to finish tenth.” Cramps had forced Hine to DNF at the Olympic Marathon Trials in February. “It was nice to bounce back,” he said.
In the men’s masters competition, Clint Wells from Boulder, CO ran a powerful second half to take the title and the $10,000 prize in a time of 2:24:55, almost three minutes up on Said Boudalia from Italy (2:27:41). Spain’s legendary marathoner, Martin Fiz, placed third in 2:30:57.
The Boston Marathon and what is now Marathon Weekend is all about tradition. The Marathon course, itself, is a virtual landmark. The greatest of all Boston traditions, though, is excellence. This year’s slow times notwithstanding, it’s the intensity of the competition and the magnificence of the winners that will be remembered, and rightly so. Echoing the words of the second placed Desisa, “The Boston Marathon is different to any other race.”