Elite runners seeing Boston race through different eyes

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Elite runners seeing Boston race through different eyes

BOSTON - For more than a century, runners at the start of the Boston Marathon have faced a breeze blowing in from the Atlantic and a dread that Heartbreak Hill will sap their strength.

Long regarded as one of the world’s toughest courses, Boston has spurned professional pacesetters while encouraging tactics that favor strategy over speed. But Kenyan Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot upended that last year, dashing from Hopkinton to Copley Square in 2 hours, 5 minutes, 52 seconds to shatter the record by 1:22.

“I always knew it was possible to run fast times here. He showed us that it is,” said Ryan Hall, who finished third in 2009 and last year ran the fastest ever time for an American in Boston. “You’ve got to be ready to run fast. You can’t think, ‘I’m going to run 2:09, 2:10 in Boston and blow everyone’s socks off.’”

Boston always has been considered a challenging course, a reputation that feeds on itself by discouraging those interested in fast times from entering. Those who do run Boston hear of near-winners who slowed to a crawl in the Newton hills and dropped back to the pack, or out of the race entirely.

But despite the aptly and ominously named Heartbreak Hill, which is really a series of climbs around mile 21, Boston is actually a downhill run that starts at an elevation of 475 feet and finishes just 16 feet above sea level.

“It’s a net downhill course. People are going to run it fast in good weather,” 1968 winner Amby Burfoot said this week. “Cool weather, a tailwind and a whole bunch of Ethiopians and Kenyans. Somebody’s going to run it really fast.”

Before Cheruiyot lopped nearly a minute and a half off the 2:07:14 set in 2006, it had hovered above 2:07 since 1986, even as most marathoning marks moved into the 2:04 range. Ethiopian Haile Gebrselassie holds the world record with a 2:03:59 run in Berlin in 2008 and Britain’s Paula Radcliffe’s 2:15:25 in 2003 stands as the women’s world record, more than five minutes better than the Boston mark set by Margaret Okayo of Kenya in 2002.

“The 2:05 was huge last year. That’s not the exception to the rule; that’s the new rule,” Burfoot said. “People are getting faster and there’s more of them. So, I think the course is not quite as hard as people thought. But I think the depth of elite talent is making every course a good course.”

Cheruiyot is back in the field for Monday’s 115th edition of the race, though a car accident left him with an injury in his right side that could slow him. Fellow Kenyan Geoffrey Mutai has the fastest time in the field, a 2:04:55 he ran in Rotterdam last year.

Ethiopia’s Teyba Erkesso is back to defend her women’s title against a field that includes four-time Boston winner Catherine Ndereba, 2008 winner Dire Tune and U.S. Olympians Kara Goucher and Blake Russell.

It may come down to the notoriously unpredictable New England weather, which can come in from behind the runners for 13.1 miles and then blow in their faces for the second half of the race. Monday’s forecast calls for temperatures climbing to 62 degrees Fahrenheit and a wind of 24 mph from the south-southwest.

“Really?” Hall said, breaking into a wide smile. “That’s what I like to hear.”

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