BOSTON — The Boston Marathon can humble even the most decorated champions. Runners who are new to its topography might get the wrong idea at the start, thanks to an opening chunk of Route 135 that unspools toward Ashland, Mass. It is downhill and fast, offering a bit of sadistic sleight of hand that masks the climbs to come as the course works its way toward Boylston Street in Boston.
It is one thing to study a map and be forewarned. It is another thing altogether to lace up your carbon-plated super sneakers and experience it firsthand.
On Monday, the 127th edition of the Boston Marathon served up its usual grab bag of triumphs and small calamities. In defending his men’s title, Evans Chebet of Kenya used his experience to separate himself from a celebrated field that included Eliud Kipchoge, the world-record holder. And Hellen Obiri exercised patience to make it a Kenyan sweep by taking the women’s crown in only her second marathon.
“When it comes to running a marathon, anything can happen,” said Obiri, 33, who embraced her 7-year-old daughter, Tania, after crossing the finish line in 2 hours 21 minutes 38 seconds. “It’s a long, long way.”
A long, long way for about 30,000 athletes who tackled the course amid cold, early-morning drizzles, and a long, long way for Kipchoge, the biggest luminary of them all.
Kipchoge, 38, arrived in Boston last week having achieved nearly everything that there is to achieve in the sport of running, winning two Olympic gold medals and 10 world marathon majors. Last year, he broke his own world record when he won the Berlin Marathon for the fourth time in 2:01:09.
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But he had never run Boston, which is notorious for its rolling hills. And only rarely has he had to settle for bib No. 2, but Monday was one of those days. Bib No. 1 belonged to Chebet, 34, as the defending champion.
Still, Kipchoge seemed determined to assert himself from the start, leading the elite men through the opening mile in a lung-searing 4:35. And there he stayed, up at the front, all the way to Mile 20, when Chebet made a surge and Kipchoge crumbled.
Chebet and Benson Kipruto, the 2021 champion, are training partners, and they agreed to work together. They even shared a water bottle a couple of miles from the finish. More important, neither seemed in awe of Kipchoge. In fact, they appeared motivated by his presence, as if they had something to prove against him.
“Our confidence in the quality of our training made us feel good about taking on this race,” Chebet said.
Chebet won in 2:05:54. Gabriel Geay of Tanzania finished second, and Kipruto was third. Kipchoge finished sixth in 2:09:23, his poorest showing since he placed eighth at the London Marathon in 2020.
Kipchoge, who did not appear at a post-race news conference, congratulated his competitors in a statement released to race organizers.
“I live for the moments where I get to challenge the limits,” he said. “It’s never guaranteed, it’s never easy. Today was a tough day for me. I pushed myself as hard as I could. But sometimes, we must accept that today wasn’t the day to push the barrier to a greater height.”
Chebet, who also won the New York City Marathon in November, said Monday’s win was the greatest result of his career. He became the first man since Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot in 2008 to defend his Boston title.
“I’m happy because I know this race,” Chebet said. “So maybe next year I’ll come back and win it again.”
Obiri approached Boston as something of a marathon neophyte, even though she was already a legend on the global running stage. She is the only woman to have won world titles in indoor track, outdoor track and cross-country. She also has two Olympic silver medals in the 5,000 meters.
Last year, she joined the On Athletics Club and moved to Boulder, Colo., so she could be coached by Dathan Ritzenhein, the former Olympic marathoner. Obiri’s younger teammates sometimes refer to their training runs with her as doing “Obiri miles,” which means they are hard miles.
But like Kipchoge, Obiri is not immune to tough tests and even the occasional mistake. When she made her marathon debut in New York in November, she went out too hard — she doubled as a “pacemaker,” she said — and faded to a sixth-place finish. She also erred by failing to consume enough water and electrolytes. In hindsight, Ritzenhein said, the experience taught her a great deal.
“It really made her fear and respect the event,” he said.
But Obiri was not exactly in a rush to do another marathon. A few days after she won the New York City Half Marathon last month, Ritzenhein gauged her interest in entering Boston. Obiri asked if she could have a week to think it over.
“No,” Ritzenhein recalled telling her, “text me tonight.”
Obiri decided to go for it. Ritzenhein said her training, which included a long, consistent stretch of 100-mile weeks, gave him the confidence that she could excel in Boston, with a fresh opportunity to put many of the lessons she had learned into practice. Ritzenhein advised her to be cautious through the first 21 miles.
“She was smart and just waited,” he said. “I didn’t think she could wait as long as she did.”
Obiri is a ferocious runner, with long, loping strides. And at Mile 24, she pushed forward. The wait was over. Ritzenhein said he could sense as much from her stride. “The power came out,” he said.
Obiri doubled over with emotion after she crossed the finish line. Amane Beriso of Ethiopia was 12 seconds back in second place, and Lonah Salpeter of Israel finished third.
“I was feeling like my body was ready and everything was ready,” Obiri said. “And I said to myself, I can’t do it from the front. If I can just wait, wait — because my coach told me that the marathon is about patience. So I tried to be patient until the right time.”
Emma Bates, a native of Elk River, Minn., ran in the lead pack for much of the race and placed fifth as the top American. Scott Fauble finished seventh as the top American man.