By Jonathan Gault
April 9, 2018
BOSTON — Boston Marathon week is upon us (okay, technically the race isn’t until next week) and in town, excitement is in the air even if spring is not — as I type this, it’s 35 degrees outside, with a windchill of 26. This year’s race is one of the most anticipated in the event’s 122-year history, and for good reason. For the first time in the Abbott World Marathon Majors era, Boston will feature two Americans who are defending AWMM champions in Shalane Flanagan (New York) and Galen Rupp (Chicago). Add in a strong men’s field with former Boston champs Lelisa Desisa (2013, 2015), Lemi Berhanu Hayle (2016), and Geoffrey Kirui (2017) and one of the strongest American women’s fields ever assembled (Flanagan, Molly Huddle, Jordan Hasay, and Desi Linden) and there should be two incredible races a week from today.
LetsRun.com will have full coverage from Boston all week, with previews, analysis, three days of Runner’s Digest radio shows with Toni Reavis from the Tracksmith Trackhouse on Newbury Street (Fri – Sat – Sun), and more. It’s going to be a fantastic week, and to kick off our coverage, we decided to convene a panel of American experts to discuss the highly-anticipated elite races.
In order to get the most candid responses, I offered our experts anonymity given that they would be discussing rival athletes/training groups. Three of them took me up on the offer, while three were bold enough to put their names to their opinions (two more either declined to be interviewed or did not respond). So in all, our panel consists of six people: Steve Magness, the former Nike Oregon Project (NOP) assistant coach who now coaches several professionals and is also the distance coach at the University of Houston; Danny Mackey, head coach of the Brooks Beasts; Kara Goucher, a two-time Olympian who finished 3rd, 5th, and 6th in her three career Boston Marathon appearances (Editor’s note: Goucher also is a former NOP team member who alleged prescription drug and IV abuse by coach Alberto Salazar to the BBC/ProPublica); and three American pro coaches who asked to remain anonymous.
We asked each expert four questions and have shared the best responses to each question below.
1. Who will finish as the top American in the women’s race?
Our panel was very high on Molly Huddle, though every panelist expected the race for top American to be very close. Huddle, 33, has run one career marathon, which went well, but not spectacularly so (she was 3rd in New York in 2016, running 2:28:13 in a race Mary Keitany won in 2:24:26). But her two prep races have gone spectacularly well — she ran 67:25 to set the U.S. half marathon record in Houston in January, and she won the U.S. 15K champs in Jacksonville in March in 47:50. In both races, she beat Hasay convincingly, with a gap of 1:13 in Houston and 50 seconds in Jacksonville.
“That’s a tough one,” said Mackey when asked who would be the top American. “I guess I’d probably pick Huddle. It’s tough because Hasay has been almost lights-out with her first two marathons and I heard Flanagan’s really, really fit, from her workouts. But the reason I go with Huddle is just because she hasn’t lost [to another American on the roads] in what, five years? I don’t even know the last time she lost. And her half marathons have gone great. I think she’ll be the one that’s top. It’s gonna be tight though. Hasay might run so damn fast. My second choice would probably be Hasay.”
In fact, it has been over six years since Huddle lost to an American woman on the roads (Janet Bawcom at the 15K champs in March 2012). That’s a span of 30 races — though only one of them was 26.2 miles.
“I know when [Huddle] ran New York a couple years ago, I think she had a conservative game plan for her first one and she’s a much better runner than that,” said Anonymous Coach A. “…I could see her making a six-or-seven-minute improvement, for sure.
“Picking a winner, that’s hard,” continued Coach A. “I think it’s probably going to come down to Shalane and Molly with Jordan very, very close by. And I wouldn’t be surprised if Molly wins out of that group.”
“I know a little bit about how Molly is preparing and, more importantly, her approach to this, and she’s not coming here to make money,” said Anonymous Coach B. “She’s coming here to win.”
Magness could not decide between Huddle and Flanagan.
“My gut tells me it comes down to Huddle and Flanagan and it’s just, I don’t know if I can pick between those two,” Magness said. “I think it comes down to experience and Shalane [has that], but Huddle is probably, at least at the shorter distances, the superior athlete at this point. So it’s whether she has figured out and mastered the marathon that will be the deciding factor.
“I think Hasay’s a little more unknown in the sense that we don’t know exactly how her buildup has gone because she skipped out a little bit on the half at Worlds (Hasay withdrew from the World Half Marathon Championships on March 24, citing a tight plantar). Her other races were solid, but Huddle was commanding in beating her at Houston and then the Gate River 15K. Those are shorter than the marathon, so you never know, but I don’t think Hasay is quite on their level yet.
“The other person who’s in the equation is Desi, and I think Desi is always constantly underrated, and I might be doing that right now as I speak. But I think one thing that Desi will do is she will run the best race that she can. She’s really good at maximizing whatever her fitness is at that point. And for her, it’s less about executing a race versus, is her best enough to get her in the mix with Shalane and Molly? And I think it just depends on how good of a day Shalane and Molly have.”
Goucher, who used to train with Flanagan under coach Jerry Schumacher (see this video for a funny look at their “rivalry”), backed her former teammate for the win.
“I think it’s hard to bet against Shalane right now because she ran so well in New York and she closed well, which is something she hasn’t typically done in most of her marathons,” Goucher said. “I think it’s such a toss-up, but I would have to go with Shalane.”
2. Will an American win the women’s race for the first time since 1985?
While an American woman has never won the Boston Marathon since it started offering prize money in 1986, in response to this question, our panelists were unanimous. All either said yes, or that there was a very high chance for an American victory.
There are several reasons for that. Obviously American women’s marathoning is incredibly strong right now, but part of it is simple math. The more you spend on the American elite field, the fewer dollars there are to spend on international runners. The cupboard isn’t bare in Boston — defending champ Edna Kiplagat is back, Aselefech Mergia was 3rd in London last year and Mamitu Daska was 3rd in New York — but if the same four Americans were running London instead against Mary Keitany and Tirunesh Dibaba, their odds of winning would plummet.
“You look at the international field, and it’s good and it’s solid, but there’s no one that these ladies can’t run with,” Magness said. “So with the fact that there’s four or so Americans in there who have a legitimate shot at winning, that makes it where it’s not just on Shalane or just on one person. So I think the odds are actually about as good as you can get in a marathon that an American will come out on top.”
“In the past, it’s really been focused on one American,” said Goucher. “Can Desi do it? Can Shalane do it? Can Deena [Kastor] do it? And I feel like if someone who’s not an American goes out and pushes the pace from the beginning, I think that’s a pace that Shalane and Jordan, and probably Molly, will be comfortable with going with. If it waits or if people blow up or if it waits until [the end of the] race, then I really like Shalane and Desi’s chances. So I think we have enough women that can win from different ways that we’re going get one across the line first. I think it’s going to happen.”
“Those three (Flanagan, Huddle, and Hasay) are so good now, and how they’ve been running, they can just run that fast, it doesn’t even matter if Boston sets up the race for an American to win,” Mackey said. “I don’t think that’s needed…I just saw Hasay’s [workout], whatever she posted online, that was nuts. If you can beat her, you’re gonna win.”
3. Will Galen Rupp win the men’s race?
This question received the most diverse group of answers of any in our panel. Two people said no (Magness and Mackey), one said that Rupp would be in the mix for the win (Coach A), one said that Rupp is the favorite but stopped short of predicting victory (Anonymous Coach C), one said yes (Goucher). Coach B’s response was the most interesting of all.
“Honestly, I couldn’t give a shit,” said Coach B. “The approach and all of the nonsense that the Nike Oregon Project has been up to, it just leaves such a bad taste in my mouth that I couldn’t care less.”
“Even though Kirui, who beat him last year, is in the race, I think just purely from a performance standpoint with what Galen’s done since and what Kirui’s done since, I would say that Galen is the favorite to win,” said Coach C. “I thought he was going to win Chicago as well, having seen him in Philadelphia [at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Philly Half in September] beforehand and he won Chicago, so I think he’ll probably be the favorite for Boston.”
Goucher went one step further.
“He is an Olympic medalist, he’s a Chicago Marathon champion, and to think he wouldn’t win is weird,” Goucher said. “I think he’ll win. The big, big guns are going to London and I think he takes it.”
Mackey expected that an outcome like last year, when Rupp finished second, 21 seconds behind winner Geoffrey Kirui, is the most likely.
“He’ll be really close, but I don’t think he’ll win, no,” said Mackey.
4. Are you rooting for Galen Rupp to win the men’s race?
Among American elites, Galen Rupp’s victory at last year’s Chicago Marathon drew a fairly tepid response, as demonstrated by the comments made by Flanagan and Meb Keflezighi last year. With the Oregon Project and Rupp’s coach, Alberto Salazar, still under investigation by USADA (though at this point, it appears unclear if the investigation will ever end), and Rupp having the best chance (by far) of any American man in Boston, I wanted to know if our panel would be cheering for a Rupp victory in the men’s race.
“No, I’m not,” said Coach B. “I’m rooting for anybody but [him], to be honest. Listen, I respect Galen. He’s got a lot of courage, he races with a lot of courage. And I respect that they’re willing to push to the limits of every single thing you do in life to get there. [But] number one, that’s never been my approach. And number two, from what I’ve read to this point, facts that I’ve read to this point, I don’t believe they’re doing it on the right side of the line.”
“Obviously, I’m not,” said Magness, the former NOP assistant who served as a whistleblower in the BBC/ProPublica investigation into the Oregon Project. “Here’s where I stand on this. I try to be as objective as I can, given my ties, but I look at it like this. If a Russian athlete was in a similar position, would I be cheering for them to win? No, I wouldn’t. So why should the color of his jersey, the name of his nationality, shift my moral and ethical views? And I don’t think it should. Whether it’s a Russian or an Ethiopian, a British or American athlete, I think we should treat them all the same in terms of drawing our own line on where we think is ethically right and wrong. Obviously, you know where I stand on that with Rupp. But that’s kind of how I see it. I don’t think nationality should come into play and if it does, then I think we’re being a little bit of a hypocrite if we then go back and critique some Russian athlete or maybe a Genzebe Dibaba indoors.”
Mackey also said that he would not be rooting for Rupp to win.
“The reason would be the same reasons, the investigation going on, the allegations, things that [Dathan] Ritzenhein has said [in the leaked USADA report],” said Mackey, who used to work at Nike but alleged in a 2015 police report that Nike’s Global Director of Athletics John Capriotti threatened to kill him at the 2015 USA Outdoor Championships. “That group is hard to root for. I would say I’m probably in the majority with that [opinion], and I think that Hasay probably falls in that bucket [of people who are hard to root for] too, sadly, just because she’s coached by Alberto. But that’s what happens if you have a coach like that — you’ve gotta deal with the positives and negatives of it.”
Coach C said he wouldn’t be rooting for Rupp, but for a different reason.
“No, of course I’m not,” said Coach C. “But that’s because he’s not my athlete. Regardless of whether there’s other reasons or not, I would never say that anyway.
“If I didn’t have someone in the race and Galen was running, I think the biggest reason right now that I wouldn’t root for him is just because there’s still so much uncertainty. I still hear rumblings that things are still happening with the investigation. To me, if, in fact, two or three months from now, much like [what] happened with Lance Armstrong, there’s an indictment of some sort from the World Anti-Doping [Agency] or USADA and Galen is suspended in some form or fashion, then every result he’s had is gonna be called into question. And obviously that’s not good for him, but it’s not good for American distance running. Usually I root for things that are good for American distance running, not bad…
“I think in America, we get on high horse quite a bit and we want to talk about the bad things that other countries are doing but I’m more concerned with cleaning up our own house before we start questioning others. And I don’t think that our house is completely clean yet.”
One of our experts will be rooting for Rupp on Monday, however.
“I kind of root for Galen,” said Coach A. “I know a lot of people don’t, but I’m such good friends with [NOP assistant] Pete Julian and I like Pete, and I don’t think Pete would associate himself with dirty people. So yeah, I can root for Galen. I root for the Americans. As long as he’s not cheating.”
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