Worknesh Degefa was fast and fearless. The 28-year-old Ethiopian came to Monday’s Boston Marathon with the fastest time in the women’s field, a 2:17:41 she ran in Dubai in January, a time that was also the fifth fastest in women’s marathon history.
Turns out, running an Ethiopian national record apparently didn’t tire her out. Just three months later, she was here in Boston, whipping the field as she crossed in the line in 2:23:31, 42 seconds ahead of three-time Abbott World Marathon Majors series winner and 2017 champion Edna Kiplagat of Kenya and 1:49 ahead of third-place American Jordan Hasay (2:25:20). It was Degefa’s first World Marathon Major victory.
Degefa made her move early. As the race crossed from Ashland into Framingham, about five miles from the start, Degefa strode away from the lead pack of some 20 runners — running a 5:12 split, her fastest mile of the race — and kept on striding. She never stopped until she got to Boston. Degefa ran alone from Framingham to Boston, looking back briefly in Natick and seeing only air and shadows.
“If I stayed longer [with the pack],’’ she said, through interpreter Bruke Tadesse, “maybe I would not make it. I knew I had some speed so I pushed myself after five miles.”
The lead pack was thick with runners coming out of Hopkinton, as many as 30 knotted together with American Sara Hall at the front. But it wasn’t long before Degefa started to move ahead, first by a step or two, then a step or two more.
Sharon Cherop and Mare Dibaba stuck with Degefa for a mile or two, but once Degefa hit the flats of Framingham, it was a one-woman show. By Mile 7, she had a 20-second lead and she continued to stretch that lead as she picked off the towns along the famous 26.2-mile route one by one. In Natick, her competitors were no longer visible on the road behind her.
The other runners let her go.
“Seeing Degefa go out, you know her ability from Dubai,” said Des Linden, last year’s champion. “When she starts putting down the super quick miles, you know that it’s her race to lose and hope she comes back to the pack.”
She didn’t. Her lead reached nearly three minutes at Mile 18 by the firehouse turn in Newton.
And those Newton hills? Not an issue. She charged up one after another with the same steady pace, boosting her mile splits by about 20 seconds on the uphill but never wavering. Degefa is a relative newcomer to the marathon, having run only three previous marathons, all on the flat course in Dubai. But she dusted off Boston’s infamous hills the same way she dusted the competition.
Degefa said her husband, who is also her coach, told her if she felt comfortable “just go.”
Of course she didn’t really know where she was going, she just followed the TV truck, her only companion on the road. Before she got to Boston for the marathon, Degefa had never seen the course. “Even though I had never seen the course, I watched all of the marathon coverage on TV last year,’’ Degefa said, “and I put that video in my mind today.”
Kiplagat led the chase pack, which included Hasay and Linden. The group made a lot of tactical moves and Linden felt moved to give her American compatriot some advice.
“We were in the back and she was covering [moves] a lot,” Linden said. “I told her to be patient. It is a lot of emotional decisions and you know, we were running as Team USA and you want to see people from here succeed. Sometimes it is just me telling myself something, too. Just saying it out loud so I can hear it.”
Kiplagat tried to mount a charge at around 15 miles and she might have had success because Degefa finally slowed on the hills.
“When they broke up at mile 5 there were the three of them so I thought maybe the gap was not going to be big, but after, like, 15 miles, we had closed the gap of the second group, the two ladies that were ahead of us,” Kiplagat said. “I thought maybe if I keep increasing the pace I might reach her before the finish line; as I [broke away] at the 35K from the group, I decided to make a strong move but when I was at 38K I realized the race is almost over and the gap is still big. So I knew I was not going to make it.”
Degefa, too, felt the 35K mark was pivotal.
“I knew after I passed 35K,’’ she said, “I feel like I am back in a winner.’’