As we approach another edition of the Boston Marathon on Monday, many observers have their eyes squarely focused on a year – 1985 – the last time an American woman won the race. With the likes of Desi Linden in the field and the anticipated debut of Jordan Hasay, many think a new American could break that streak.
But there’s another record that has the potential to stand even longer – Catherine Ndereba’s record four Boston Marathon titles.
Two Boston wins is impressive. Three really proves you know the course. Four means you’re a legend.
In fact, the renown Chicago Tribune Olympic writer Philip Hersh ranked Ndereba as the greatest female marathoner ever, even though she hasn’t received the historical recognition that others like Paula Radcliffe and Grete Waitz have.
But you can’t argue with Ndereba’s resume of two Olympic silver medals, three world titles, and six World Marathon Major titles. Her personal best of 2:18:47 from 2001 – the world record at the time – is still the third-fastest ever run.
One of the things that made Ndereba so special was her longevity. From a nine year span from 2000 (when she won her first Boston title) to 2008 (when she won silver at the Beijing Olympics), Ndereba maintained herself as one of the most dominant marathoners in the world.
That’s an incredibly long lifespan, particularly in a grueling event like the marathon that chews up and spits out most top runners within a few years.
Yet factors in modern elite running tend to make you think it’s unlikely we’ll see someone win four Boston titles ever again.
I’m likely stating the obvious, but it’s really, really hard to repeatedly beat everyone over the course of a wildly unpredictable 26.2 miles.
Just how difficult is it to win four Boston titles? Since Ndereba’s fourth win in Beantown in 2005, only Rita Jeptoo and her three Boston wins has come close to reaching that pinnacle, though we later found that Jeptoo was doping during at least one of those wins and was stripped of 2014 title.
There’s also the issue of competition. In the 11 years from 2006-2016, there were 10 different Boston women’s winners (Jeptoo was the only repeat winner). In the 11 years before that, only five women claimed wins in Boston.
The depth in the women’s marathon in the previous eras was not nearly as deep as it is now, making reigns at the top like Ndereba’s easier to come by. Back then, Ndereba could get away with a solid performance and take the win against decent fields.
But women’s marathoning has come a long way since then. Now, with elites like Mary Keitany, Jemima Sumgong (ugh, nvm), and Florence Kiplagat headlining fields at major marathons, there’s no such thing as a free lunch anymore.
Finally, there’s the reality that Boston isn’t always the greenest pastures for elite runners (in this sense, green symbolizes cold, hard cash).
A win in Boston and a strong fall marathon finish often means a huge appearance fee offer from other spring marathons, notably the London and Tokyo Marathons. London always puts up huge sums of appearance fees to attract loaded fields, and the new fast Tokyo course could start appealing to those who want a chase fast times.
Though Boston still maintains its cult status for American runners, from the elite runner perspective it’s still an un-rabbited race on a difficult course – not the most appealing things to the top East African runners.
And that’s why the fact Ndereba returned to Boston year after year – and won year after year – is so damn impressive and seemingly unlikely to be replicated again.