Degefa dominates, Cherono outsprints Desisa in Boston

Worknesh Degefa and Lawrence Cherono won the 2019 Boston Marathon, an IAAF Gold Label road race, on Monday with utterly different race strategies.

Degefa, running her first Boston, pulled away from the pack after the 5km mark and ran alone for two hours to the finish, winning in 2:23:31.

Cherono ran defensively and only seized the lead from two-time Boston champion Lelisa Desisa in the last strides of the race, his clocking of 2:07:57 to Desisa’s 2:07:59 not really capturing how close their finish actually was.

Degefa claimed afterward her strategy was motivated by a desire to avoid a race like Cherono’s. “If I stayed longer,” she said, “I thought at the finish I would not make it.”

After waiting behind early leader Sara Hall for 5km as the pack left the start in Hopkinton and descended into Ashland, Degefa bolted to the front and simply ran away. 2018 champion Des Linden, who finished 5th in 2:27:00 (almost 13 minutes faster than her 2018 winning time), reported, “You just had to let her go, and hope she came back.”

Degefa came to Hopkinton as the fastest marathoner in the field, having clocked a jaw-dropping 2:17:41 in Dubai in January, but questions remained about her ability to repeat that kind of effort just under three months later.

It turned out her ability to maintain her pace alone in the front was more important. The race was effectively over before Degefa left Ashland for Framingham.

“Even though I had never seen the course, I watched all of the marathon coverage last year. I put that video in my mind today,” Degefa said. “I’m happy the race took place after the rain was done. I’m so happy that I won, today is the most wonderful.”

The rain Degefa referred to was a line of thunderstorms which passed through the area just hours before the race, forcing many of the runners to delay their arrival in Hopkinton before the race and leaving the course soaked even though the rain had stopped.

As Degefa’s lead expanded to nearly three minutes at the 30km mark in Newton, her pursuers seemed to be counting on her coming back rather than mounting a sustained effort to catch her. “You don’t want to go too deep, too soon,” Linden explained.

Instead, the pack raced each other, with a lot of small surges and shifts in pace. As they left the Newton Hills in the final 10km of the race, Edna Kiplagat finally shattered the chase pack decisively.

Kiplagat soon discovered that Degefa was simply too far away to catch, even though she was able to narrow the margin of victory down to only 44 seconds, with her finish time of 2:24:13. Third place went to Jordan Hasay, running only her third marathon and her second Boston, in 2:25:20.

Cherono Overcomes ‘Poor Finishing’

Like Degefa, Lawrence Cherono came to Boston with the fastest PB in the field (2:04:06 from Amsterdam in 2018), and like Degefa that mark came from a race almost as a different from Boston as indoor track is from cross country.

Unlike Degefa, Cherono opted to rely on his closing speed, or at least to choose caution over confidence in the early miles. The early men’s pack, as often happens in Boston, was large and sprawling, and didn’t get really serious about hard racing until they left Wellesley and started climbing through Newton.

It wasn’t until the 24th mile, too close to the finish for the 5km splits, that the pack narrowed to three.

At that point, there wasn’t a whole lot of waiting still happening. Desisa, whose wins and losses in Boston starting in 2013 have built an emotional connection between the young Ethiopian and the city of Boston, seemed to be recruiting every muscle from his feet to his teeth to hang on to Cherono and Kenneth Kipkemoi, who eventually finished third in 2:08:07.

After the trio made the right turn from Commonwealth Avenue on to Hereford Street with barely a kilometer remaining, Desisa made a bid for the win, turning left onto Boyleston street with a running stride of lead. Slowly, though, Cherono pulled even, and in the last strides to the line Desisa’s legs gave out and Cherono broke the tape.

It was an unexpected result for at least one runner. “Personally, I am poor in finishing,” admitted Cherono. “But today I did my fantastic job. It was no man’s race to win, I am so grateful and so happy.”

“I was happy to have a plan, and up until the end I controlled everybody,” said Desisa. “I was watching [2017 champion] Geoffrey Kirui, and after he dropped off, I decided to go for it. When I saw Cherono leading, I felt in my mind I couldn’t control the pace any more, and because of that I am number two.”

“This year I came back to Boston like a champion,” added Desisa. “I am happy. I will come back.”

Kirui was fifth in 2:08:55. 2018 champion Yuki Kawauchi finished seventeenth in 2:15:29, 29 seconds faster than his winning time last year.

Two-time Boston Marathon champion (1979 and 1983) Joan Benoit Samuelson, the winner of the inaugural Olympic marathon for women in 1984, finished in 3:05:18 on the 40th anniversary of her first win here.

After announcing a goal of finishing within 40 minutes of her winning time (2:35:15) in the race which first established her as a top marathoner, Samuelson reached it with just under 10 minutes to spare.