Thursday, April 24, 2014

2014 Boston Marathon: The Women

As if it needs to be said, I love watching races. And since I was young, my favorites have been New York and Boston. Sure, it's a lot easier when that's what you're exposed to, and being on the East Coast doesn't hurt.

So maybe I love New York and Boston because I grew up watching them, but maybe it's because I love America, and these two races represent the spirit of our country. Yes, it's cool when people run fast. Seeing a 2:03 marathon happen is neat. What does it really mean, though? You ran a flat race in perfect conditions with a hoard of pacers paid to set up your race. That's not racing. Europe takes the fun out of everything. They manufacturer fast races. With the Chicago Marathon being an exception, the fastest races are in Europe: Berlin, London, Rotterdam, Frankfurt. In triathlon, the fastest iron-distance race on the planet is Challenge Roth in Germany (the accuracy of its distances often a subject of debate). Even on the track, you go there to run fast races with pacers.

America values winning. We are a country built on the principle of victory.

To pull a quote from the great documentary, The Rock:

"Losers always whine about [doing] their best; winners go home and f**k the prom queen."

On Monday, Shalane Flanagan had one goal - to win the Boston Marathon.

Her game plan was actually quite simple: set a pace so fast that either nobody can handle it, or they choose to sit back. Either way, if you wanted to beat Shalane you were going to have to rip it from her cold, dead hands because she was not going to give this one up easily. The race started with a 5:11 mile, which is fast, but certainly not impossible on the very downhill first mile. It was more the fact she pulled them through the half in 1:09:27, which was well under course record pace.

It's as if Shalane asked herself, What Would Pre Do? She set a blistering pace and dared anyone to come with her. Perhaps what's more surprising is that they did.

Ultimately it was Flanagan who fell off the pace first, losing contact with the pack in the Newton hills. She fought valiantly to the end, crossing the line in 7th in a new personal best - and the fastest time by an American woman at Boston - of 2:22:02. This time would have won in all but 2 of the years women have competed.

In sports, I think we often forget to factor in the human element. After all, professional athletes are still people, prone to off days and errors. It's part of what makes them so captivating. In tears after the race, you could see how much winning in her hometown, on Patriot's Day, meant to Shalane. Her story was compelling, the kind that journalists drool over. Because athletes are humans, it also means they are motivated by external factors.

Flanagan is from the Boston suburbs. She's trained on the course to familiarize herself with every turn, every bump. And most of all, she's an American. An American who wanted to win not just for herself, but for her country, at the race that means the most to her, a year after tragedy scarred the event. She knew what kind of shape she was in, and executed a race plan that put her in the best position to win. Running, and winning, from the front is not easy, but she took a chance. The fact that the other women ran with her from the gun shows the immense respect they have for her.

The race was Rita Jeptoo's to lose. As a two-time winner in Boston already, she knows what it takes to win there. Her last couple of miles were faster than all but a few of the professional men's. After the race she admitted the fast early pace took her by surprise and that she didn't feel great. You probably wouldn't have guessed that considering she ran a 2:18:57 course record and became the first woman under 2:20 in Boston. Runner-up Buzunesh Deba also snuck in under 2:20, and two others ran in the 2:20 mid.

How is it that a race without rabbits on a "hard" course just led to what was probably the greatest day in women's marathon history?

A: Shalane B.A. Flanagan, that's how

You could hear the collective grumblings from "people who know about running" saying Shalane had gone out too fast, and why wouldn't she just run slower and try to be there in the finale. Because she wasn't going to win that way! Rita Jeptoo ate everyone for lunch. Every single runner. The pace could have been 5 minutes slower, wouldn't have mattered. Shalane could have been there as they turned onto Boylston, wouldn't have mattered. She ran a 4:48 mile at the end of that race.

Without Shalane Flanagan running hard from the gun, the race would easily have been 3 minutes slower. And none of them would have cared, because the only goal is to win the race.

To anyone that said "if Shalane had run more conservatively she could have run faster than 2:22" - you're an idiot. Her goal wasn't to run fast, it was to run whatever it took to win. She could have run 2:17 and if she didn't win, still been disappointed.

The point was made (by Toni Reavis, read his race recap if you haven't) that based on the results of London a couple of weeks ago, it's possible Flanagan could have won that race, and almost certainly would have been (capable of running) faster than her 2:22. But London doesn't hold the same place in her heart, and you can't just bottle that type of motivation and sell it. She was fueled by the sense of pride she felt for Boston, and has vowed to keep trying to get a win there.

After the race you could feel her disappointment that she didn't win. She's placed higher before, running slower. But she ran an amazing race, there was no shame to be felt. She thrilled the crowds. She created an unbelievable race. She laid herself out to try to win. It was awesome.

Shalane of course wasn't the only American in the field. Desiree Davila (now Linden) approached her day following the cardinal rule of smart running: run your race.

From the gun she was immediately out of sight. 80 seconds down at 10k, she came through the half in 1:11:41 - well over 2 minutes behind the lead pack. Back in 2011 she finished 2nd in another awesome race, but a few years of injury has limited her racing. Her evenly paced run allowed her to finish 10th at 2:23:41, which is a terrific return for her.

And as if she needed to prove herself, 52 year old Joan Benoit-Samuelson, former winner of the Boston Marathon, ran 2:52:10. That's absolutely incredible.

Every race is different. In 2011 the story was about the tailwind and whether it positively affected performances (for what it's worth, it did, and by at least 2.5-3 minutes). 2012 the story was the heat. 2013 will be remembered not for the race.

2014 can be remembered for both the race, and its meaning. Shalane took what everyone in Boston was feeling and put that into each stride. The best thing she can do from here? Never give up. Next year could be snowy, it could be rainy, there could be a headwind. Boston is unpredictable as they come, and just because she didn't get it this year, there's always next year.

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