Elite Media Day At The 2013 Boston Marathon: Trying To Get The Inside Scoop On The Leading Ethiopian And Kenyan Contenders

How will the 6th fastest 10,000 man in history, Micah Kogo, do in his debut? Is Lelisa Desisa the marathon’s newest young star? Is relative unknown Dickson Chumba really the man to beat or is he not in top shape as he claims? And what about 2010 champ Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot? Plus, let’s not forget defending champ Wesley Korir.

April 12, 2013
By Robert Johnson, LetsRun.com

Editor’s Note: This piece is devoted almost entirely to the men’s race at Boston. Since we did a piece on Shalane Flanagan yesterday, we figured it was better to cover the men properly instead of doing a poor job on two races. We did interview Meseret Hailu and Stephanie Rothstein-Bruce and will talk about that on Sunday when our formal race previews come out.

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Today was elite media day in Boston and I wanted to give you a feel for what that was like and dish out the insight I was able to glean from being here.

With the elites, Boston does things a little bit differently than the other majors. In Boston, all of the elites are brought in on a single day at once. A bigwig from John Hancock makes a few remarks and then it’s open game for 90 minutes with whomever you want to talk to.

Priceline offering a $3000 hotel room

Priceline offering a $3000 hotel room

Since I’d already talked to the biggest American in the field on Thursday, local favorite Shalane Flanagan, and there have already been a ton of stories written on the Americans and undoubtedly a bunch more to come out in the next few days, I did what any true distance journalist would do – well okay, I did what only someone working for LetsRun.com would do – tried to get the scoop on the top Africans/Ethiopians.

Since I was the only one here for LetsRun today (Hey, don’t get mad, Boston hotels are expensive and we can only afford so much. Check out the screenshot I took about the great deal that was available at 9:30 pm on Friday night for Sat-Tuesday. The business of a running journalist makes no sense. We’re shelling out for hotels and not charging for content. Flotrack is charging $20 per month and having their poor guys bum couches. 35 is the age when one’s officially too old to bum a couch and, sadly, I’m past that.), I decided to go for the biggest names first and in my mind that meant the men.

Stop #1

Micah Kogo Of Kenya (who will be making his marathon debut in Boston.)
Kogo: “I’m a little bit nervous because I’ve never finished a full marathon but I’m confident in my training.”

Why did I start with Kogo?

Well, no one else in the field besides Shalane has an Olympic medal on the track. Like Shalane, Kogo won a bronze in the 10,000 in Bejing. With a 26:35 10,000-meter track PR, he also is the sixth-fastest man in history at 10,000. If that’s not enough, Kogo has proven in the past to be good on the roads.  Even when Kogo was still a track force, he may have been more at home on the roads (Kogo told us he preferred the roads) as he also is a former 10k road world record holder at 27:01.

Unlike some who have boldly moved to the marathon, Kogo has taken a slower approach. He learned to excel at the 13.1 distance over the last three years – he ran 61:30 in 2010, 60:03 in 2011 and 59:07 – and now Kogo thinks he’s ready for the full 26.2 distance.

Kogo hasn’t done any prep races prior to Boston. He said that he was originally supposed to run the half marathon in Prague but “decided it was good for me to focus on the Boston marathon with three full months of training.” A wise choice – since Prague was last week.

Editor’s update: Kogo’s agent Ricky Simms read today’s article and wrote in and said Robert misunderstood Kogo. Kogo was originally going to run the RAK Half in February “but had to pull out with a sore toe.”

As for how that training has been going, Kogo, who often trains with some of the top guys in the world (including 2:03:02 performer and Boston and New York course record holder Geoffrey Mutai and London marathoner course record holder Emmanuel Mutai), said the following:

“My training has been going well and I have been doing a lot of runs and I see that (should be) able to finish the marathon.”

When asked if he was confident or nervous, Kogo was honest: “I’m a little bit nervous because I’ve never finished a full marathon but I’m confident in my training. I did a long run of 40km and have been finishing with the top (guys in the group).”

Off camera, we asked Kogo if in practice if he and the Mutais (not related) ever duked it out and if so, “who was the top dog right now in practice?” Kogo responded that everyone purposely doesn’t do that.

“No, no no, just relax the the body so the training goes into the body.”

Stop #2 – Lelisa Desisa 

Kogo, who has never run a marathon and hasn’t run any prep races this year, was stop number one for me as he was the biggest unknown and I figured I had to talk to him as it was very possible no one else would.

Desisa was stop #2 because he is the on-paper race favorite in my mind, but also someone about whom I had a lot of questions I needed answered.

In January, the just-turned 23-year-old had a smashing success of a marathon debut as he won Dubai in 2:04:45. Given that and his past successes – two half marathons in the 59:30s last year, a near victory over eventual 10,000 bronze medallist Tariku Bekele before the Olympics, and road race victories at Cherry Blossom, Bolder Boulder, Boilermaker and Cooper Bridge Run in 2010 and 2011 – there is little reason to doubt that when properly prepared, Desisa can compete with the very vest in the world at the 26.2 distance.

The question is, “Is he properly prepared?”

The Dubai race was less than 3 months ago on January 25th. Desisa was only added to the Boston field one month ago (March 13th) when Ryan Hall and Moses Mosop pulled out. There is no way someone can win a marathon of Boston’s quality on one month of training. My first question to Desisa was, “Had he been training for this race prior to being added to the field?”

The translator Gemedu Dedefo said Desisa, who often laughs and cracks a huge smile when giving very animated answers, said that he told his coach after Dubai that he wanted do something in April, maybe Boston but maybe another spring race like Rotterdam. “No problem” as to which one – that was for the agent to figure out.

With this settled, I then asked how his training had been going and if he was confident about his chances on Monday. Lelisa responded emphatically yes. As the translator said, “Before Dubai, he was afraid a bit of the marathon. He thought it would be a very big challenge. Now he has experience and he views it like a half marathon – something very simple. He has a lot of confidence.”

Hussein Makke’s Insight

After talking to Desisa, I spoke to Hussein Makke, the director of the Elite Sports Management group which represents both Lelisa and 2009 Boston champ Deriba Merga, who is also running Boston again this year.

Merga has struggled mightily since finishing third in Boston in 2010 as he failed in his bid to repeat. Since that third place finish in Boston, Merga then DNFed two marathons, ran 2:09 in his only finish of 2010 and then ran 2:21 in his only finish of 2011.

While I realize an agent’s job is to pump up his or her athletes, Makke definitely thinks Merga could be a factor on Monday. “If he runs cautious for himself. I think he has a very good chance to win it. He knows the course,” said Makke of Merga, who is running Boston for the fourth time.

The problem is Merga is a known frontrunner who rarely runs cautiously.

Remember, at the 2008 Olympics, Merga was the one who brazenly exchanged punishing surges with eventual Olympic champion Sammy Wanjiru in a bid for golden glory in Beijing before being the last one to succumb to Wanjiru at the 37 km mark. Had Merga not thrown caution to the wind, with the “all or nothing” style of running he is known for, he almost certainly would have ended up with an Olympic medal. Instead, he ended up fourth after running a race that, given the conditions, easily would have won every other Olympic marathon ever run.

And even Makke, Merga’s agent, basically admitted he has no idea what Merga will do on Monday. “The big question for the race is what does Deriba do to the field in the first 32k – he could blow it totally up (with a rash move).”

And how Merga runs the race will greatly influence what the other contenders do and how the top Americans, who almost certainly won’t go with the leaders if the race is fast from the gun, run the race as well.

If Merga goes for broke, it seems unlikely that the very confident Lelisa will let him go without a fight. Perhaps those two bite off more than they can handle and then someone like 2010 New York winner Gebre Gebremariam kicks to victory late by picking up the pieces. In the eyes of Makke, Gebremariam, whom Makke said “is a follower” as he likes to just wait and outkick people at the end of races, is a definite threat for victory.

(For an article on Gebremariam see: Gebre Gebremariam Hopes Third Time The Charm At 2013 Boston Marathon)

In talking to Makke, it is clear he thinks Lelisa is a huge talent as the words “2:03 flat” and Lelisa were used in the same sentence after I asked if he was as good as I thought he was. But Makke was very honest when giving his analysis of what we should expect from Lelisa.

“He (Lelisa) is in shape. There’s no question. The question is where is he emotionally,” said Makke as Lelisa won a life-changing amount of money $200,000 at the ripe age of 23 less than 12 weeks ago.

Lelisa Desisa (r.), with translator Gemedu Dedefo, was full of smiles and confidence.jpg

Lelisa Desisa (r.), with translator Gemedu Dedefo, was full of smiles and confidence.

As for fitness, the five Ethiopians in Boston this year all train together at times – Lelisa, Gebremariam, Merga, as well as Markos Geneti (2:04:54) and Raji Assefa (2:06:24) – so someone should know who is the strongest.

If Lelisa is to be believed, it is himself.

Much like how I asked Kogo who is the top dog in his elite Kenyan training group, I asked the same question to Lelisa. Except unlike Kogo who deferred and said the group sticks together, the confident Lelisa answered in English, “(In) training, I am #1,” as he flashed a #1 sign (recreated on the picture on the right).

The Secret Contender – Is It Dickson Chumba Of Kenya?

When breaking down the Ethiopians, Makke told me that there was someone he feared might spoil Monday for one of his talented crew of Ethiopians – Kenya’s Dickson Chumba, who ran 2:05:46 to win in Eindhoven last October. I think Makke said he was at the race and was impressed by the win. He also said he’d heard through the rumor mill that Chumba, who went from 2:09 in 2010 to 2:07 in 2011 to 2:05 last year, was the guy impressing people in Kenya.

Hearing that, I tracked down Chumba but Chumba told me something you rarely hear at an event like this (interview embedded on left).

“I trained for this marathon but I am not in shape like last year for Eindhoven, but I’ll try this one,” said Chumba who ended up a DNF in last year’s heat in Boston.

As for what has resulted in Chumba not being in tip-top shape, it was hard to understand exactly what he said. I know he (and everyone associated with the Kenyans) said the rainy season has been unusually bad this year for the last 3 weeks or so (article on the floods in Kenya here), but I couldn’t quite understand if that was the only thing wrong with his training or if he also implied he’d tried to force things too much (listen for yourself – perhaps your ears are better than mine).

When I told him the weather was supposed to be good on Monday, Chumba did say something more positive: “If the weather is good, I run good.”

After I spoke with him, a Kenyan came up to me (not a runner, but he didn’t want to be identified so I’ll just label him in the agent/coach/journalist/fan category) and said, “I saw you talking to Chumba. That is very smart as he’s the one everyone in Kenya is talking about. He’s the one people are betting on.”

When I told this guy that Chumba had told me he wasn’t in top shape, my “mystery” Kenyan source didn’t lose faith.

Was Chumba hustling me? Was Makke hustling me?

We’ll find out on Monday and that’s the beauty of the marathon – it’s a great mystery until it actually unfolds. That sentiment was summed up perfectly by American steeplechaser Ben Bruce, who is in town run the Invitational road mile himself on Sunday and to support his wife Stephanie Rothstein Bruce in the marathon on Monday. Later in the day, at a separate press conference for the BAA Invitational mile and 5k on Sunday, Bruce was asked whose race was a bigger deal this weekend – his mile or his wife’s marathon? Bruce responded perfectly:

“I’m more excited for her race because there is so much more of an element of surprise and mystery in a marathon. I’m pretty sure I know about where I am for the mile but we’ll see where she is at. I’m excited to see what happens.”

The mystery will be solved on Monday.

PS – 2010 Champ Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot – “I think Monday will be good. I can do something.”

Because I only slept two hours last night, I almost forgot. After talking to Kogo and before talking to Lelisa, I did talk briefly with 2010 Boston champ Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot of Kenya. It’s fascinating to realize that in 2010 Cheruiyot did something that many thought would never happen – run 2:05 in Boston. He brought the course record down from 2:07:14 to 2:05:52. At the time, a 2:05 was viewed as mind-boggling for Boston and a year later the course record was 2:03:02. LOL.

After running 2:06 twice in 2011 – the year after his Boston win – Cheruiyot struggled mightily last year with a right leg injury. He had to miss Boston and actually only ran one race all year – a 2:21 disaster in Amsterdam in October. Cheruiyot, who is still just 24 (his course record came at age 21) said the following about his leg and chances on Monday:

“Right now, it’s not bad – a little bit of pain but not like last year. … The training has been good (for me) but the last two weeks it has really been raining in Kenya (so it’s been hard to train properly). I think Monday will be good. I can do something.”

Additionally, before walking out the door, I interviewed last year’s champ Wesley Korir, who is a proud Louisville grad given their recent NCAA basketball title (which he compared to his Boston title – it’s not how you start the race that’s most important but rather how you finish it) as well as a newly minted Kenyan politician. My interview is embedded as I’m operating on 2 hours sleep (6:30 am flight) and it’s 5:30 am.

PPS – Do you have insight? Email me.


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