One should be hesitant to quote a Yankee great in the shadow of Fenway Park, but as that old philosopher Yoga Berra often said, "It's never over 'til it's over." The Hall Of Fame catcher - who died last fall - would have smiled if he could have seen the almost unfathomable comeback of Atsede Baysa to win the 120th Boston Marathon.
But first, the race had to set up just right for the patient Ethiopian to snatch the victory. With the starting line temperature at 69 degrees and climbing, the women's elite field exhibited caution as they rolled out of Hopkinton. Latvia's Jelena Procupcuka led about 15-20 elites through the downhills of the first 5 kilometers in 18:22 - a relaxed 2:34 pace - then ceded the lead to Americans Neely Spence Gracey and Sarah Crouch who had their moment in the sun for the next mile while defending champion Caroline Rotich surprisingly walked off the course in the 5th mile - suffering from an inexplicable right foot pain. Shortly thereafter, the Ethiopian pair of Astede Baysa and Mamitu Daska took the reins. The pace had not increased to any noticeable degree when the women leaders - still a dozen strong with Tirfi Tsegay leading the way, followed by Valentine Kipketer and Daska - passed 15K in 53:58. When Tsegay cranked out a 5:26 11th mile, she trimmed the lead pack to 10 as the women charged on to Wellesley College. Baysa was at the point when the leading women split half marathon in 1:15:25 on their way to Lower Newton Falls.
Like the men's race, the steep downhill just past 25K set the stage for the first decisive move of the women's race: Kipketer's free-wheeling surge down the slope. A scrambled ensued as 5 of Kipketer's opponents - Tsegay, Baysa, Buzunesh Deba, Joyce Chepkirui, and Flomena Daniel - rallied to cover her move while the rest went out the back door.
The race was on. Deba and Daniel were the next casualties - dropping back while the Kenyan leader continued to dish out the punishment as the leaders climbed out of Lower Newton Falls and headed for the Newton hills. Soon after, Baysa was gapped as the Kenyan leader continued to throw in fartlek-like pace changes. Kipketer flew past the Newton fire station and turned right into the hills. Hoping to break Tsegay and Chepkirui - the remaining two challengers - Kipketer covered the hilly 4 mile stretch from 16 to 20 in 22:48. Her bold strategy was ill-fated as she was the one to falter - dropping back as the trio tackled Heartbreak Hill.
And then there were two - Tsegay and Chepkirui were left to wrestle for the wreath. Cresting Heartbreak, they battled together past the 35K mark and then on down to Cleveland Circle. Running side by side with only 5K remaining, the pair began to show the strain as their cadence tempo wobbled and Tsegay began to glance over her shoulder - repeatedly. What had she spotted? Soon it was clear. Still back over 150 meters but closing rapidly was Baysa - long ago written off, but now very much alive. Baysa - down 37 seconds to the leading twosome at 22 miles - somehow was able to summon the energy and the will to once again take up the chase. Sensing the renewed challenge from behind, Tsegay accelerated away from Chepkirui knowing Baysa was the real threat.
Passing 24 miles, Tsegay's lead over Baysa was only 12 seconds and was gone completely before the pair reached Fenway. With superior turnover and looking strong, Baysa - a two time champion of both the Chicago and Paris Marathons - powered by her countrywoman who could offer no response. Invigorated by the throng that lined the streets, Baysa glided on to victory in 2:29:19 - 44 seconds ahead of Tsegaye who hung on for 2nd. Chepkirui struggled across the line in 2:30:50 for 3rd. Amazingly, the new champion - down about 200 meters at 22 miles - had somehow rallied to win by about 250 meters.
The 2016 women's champion was humble at the post-race press conference. "Winning the Boston Marathon has been one of my goals. There were many strong and fast ladies in the field. I have trained with my Ethiopian teammates who have kept me focused," she said. "I knew that winning the race would not be easy." She admitted that a tender hamstring prevented her - perhaps wisely so - from giving chase when Kipketer employed a fartlek routine in her Newton Hills attack. "Instead, the steady pace I maintained allowed me to stay close and conserve energy. And I was able to finish strong." Those who witnessed it would say she finished Boston Strong.
BY DAVE HUNTER