It’s been 29 years since an American woman finished first in Boston.
When American Lisa Rainsberger (then Lisa Larsen-Weidenbach) broke the tape in 2:34:06 on Boylston Street in 1985, she was the ninth U.S. woman to win the Boston Marathon in the 14 years since women were officially allowed to participate in the race. But she was also the last, a streak that has now reached 29 years and counting. Now that Meb Keflezighi broke the American men’s drought in Boston, what’s it going to take for another U.S. women to win at the Boston Marathon?
Many signs suggest it could be sooner than later.
Although the top spot on the podium in Boston has remained elusive, American women are turning in fast times in Boston—Shalane Flanagan’s 2:22:02 this year is the fastest time ever by an American in Boston, while Desiree Linden’s 2:22:36 in 2011 is the second fastest.
U.S. runners have won and come close in the past and are becoming competitive again. Joan Samuelson won Boston twice in 1979 and 1983 and placed fourth in 1991. The year Rainsberger won, seven of the top 10 women finishers were Americans. But after Kim Jones finished second in both 1991 (2:26:40) and 1992 (2:30:00), there was a 15-year gap until another American finished in the top three. Kara Goucher ended that drought in 2009 with her third-place finish (2:32:25), while Linden was just two seconds away from a win with her runner-up effort in 2011 (2:22:38). And Flanagan finished fourth last year (2:27:08).
“If you look at the world scene, we’re already there,” says Rainsberger, who also finished 10th in Boston in 1987 and fifth in 1989. “Winning at Boston isn’t about being the best athlete, it’s about being the smartest athlete.”
While 16 out of the 18 female winners have been from Ethiopia or Kenya since East African runners began their Boston domination in 1997, the American victory drought speaks to more than inherent speed. Yes, the wicked fast top-four finishers in 2014—Rita Jeptoo (2:18:57, Kenya), Buzenesh Deba (2:19:59, Ethiopia), Mare Dibaba (2:20:35, Ethiopia) and Jemima Jelagat Sumgong (2:20:41, Kenya)—recorded the four fastest times ever on the Boston course, but it would be hard to make an argument that they trained or raced differently than their American and international counterparts. In fact, a study conducted during Swiss marathons held between 2000 and 2010 in conjunction with the University of Zurich in in Zurich, Switzerland, and the Kenyatta University in Kenya, found that African and non-African female runners had similar performances in the marathon distance.
“People keep asking why are the Kenyans so much better than us,” says Linden, who spent six weeks training in Kenya last winter to discover an answer to that very question. “It’s just running, putting one foot in front of the other and going forward. We’re doing all the right things, we just need to keep at it.”
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Aside from Flanagan, Linden, and Goucher—the trio that represented the U.S. in the marathon at the 2012 Olympics—other American runners who have run under 2:30 in the past two and a half years include Amy Hastings (2:27:03), Renee Metivier Baillie (2:27:17), Serena Burla (2:28:01), Lauren Kleppin (2:28:48), Annie Bersagel (2:28:59), Stephanie Rothstein (2:29:35), Janet Bawcom (2:29:45), and Clara Santucci (2:29:54).
While East Africans still dominate the 26.2-mile racing lists, the U.S. has more depth in the marathon than it has in a long time and more top American women are focusing on—and doing well in—international races. Goucher and Flanagan have led the resurgence in Boston and New York, but Bersagel recently won the Dusseldorf Marathon (2:28:59), Serena Burla took second at the Amsterdam Marathon (2:28:01) in October and Linden placed fifth in the Berlin Marathon (2:29:15) last September
Yet, the average women’s winning time in Boston over the past 18 years is 2:25:05, with a range 2:18:57 to 2:32:16. Among Americans, only Flanagan, Linden and Goucher have run that fast in the past few years. Still, finishing time is often irrelevant in Boston. Without pace-setting rabbits and a deep field from around the world, it’s all about racing, and it takes a special runner to win on that course.
“It’s all about a willingness to work hard,” Samuelson says. “The athletes who succeed are the ones who aren’t afraid of hard work and have an innate desire to succeed.”
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Flanagan seems to be the most likely candidate to break the U.S. drought—and thinking about it is tantalizing after watching Keflezighi’s win this year—but it’s easier said than done, given that the Boston Marathon attracts a deep world-class field every year. As for Flanagan’s 2014 performance, after the events of 2013, the 118th Boston Marathon was personal for her. The hometown favorite showed up ready to win and left no doubt about her intent as soon as the starting gun went off. She tried the unlikely tactic of trying to lead from wire-to-wire, starting out with a blistering 5:11 pace for the first mile out of Hopkinton.
That’s a difficult goal to achieve, Rainsberger says, because a marathon is all about economy of energy. Flanagan wound up doing all of the work for a pack of nine runners through the halfway mark. She fell off the lead near the Newton Hills and faded to seventh place but still ran strong enough over the final miles to slash three minutes off of her PR. Ironically, her time would have earned her the laurel wreath in all but two other years since 1972.
“Shalane was so excited to control the race, it overshadowed her ability to win it,” says Rainsberger, who won the Chicago Marathon twice in the late 1980s and also claimed victories in Japan’s Hokkaido Marathon (1990) and the Twin Cities Marathon (1993). “If she had conserved energy and sat in the back of the pack, she could have won it.”
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Another realistic challenge with the marathon distance is that competitive racers can only focus on one or two marathons a year. If one event doesn’t go according to plan or a runner gets injured, Rainsberger points out that racers then have a long time to wait to test the efficacy of their training. Goucher missed the chance to run a fall marathon last year because of injuries, while Linden was sidelined for portions of late 2012 and early 2013.
As for Rainsberger, who’s now 50, a mom and a coach who lives in Colorado Springs, she’s mostly put her racing to bed. But 2015 will mark the 30th anniversary of her win on Boylston Street and she plans to be in Hopkinton to toe the line once again.
“I run every other day for fun and fitness,” she says. “The idea of going out for a three-hour training run isn’t very appealing right now, but I will run Boston again.”