At 22 miles, the 2017 Boston Marathon was down to a two-man race: Oregon's Galen Rupp vs. Kenya's Geoffrey Kirui.
They were a mismatched pair. At 5-foot-11, wearing a borrowed white hat from fellow marathoner Joan Benoit Samuelson, Rupp towered over the 5-foot-2, shaved-headed Kirui. Yet they were making their Boston debuts together, locked in the lead, side by side.
A year later, Kirui remembers them being carried by the cheers of fans lining the route. "This really gave us some morale to push to the finish line," he says.
Rupp had built a slight lead at Heartbreak Hill 2 miles earlier as they pulled away from Somali-American Abdi Abdirahman and Japan's Suguru Osako. By Mile 21, Rupp and Kirui were together in the clear. A couple of times, Kirui had tested Rupp, pushing the pace -- and Rupp answered. Then, after the 22-mile mark, Kirui dug even deeper and turned on the speed as they loped downhill after the Newton Hills. This time, the gap between the two widened. It grew further as Kirui ran mile 24 in 4:27. "I was starting to get a little tired, and then he put that big move in," says Rupp. "I tried my best to respond and hold on, but I just didn't have enough."
Kirui didn't let up, cruising to the win in 2:09:37. He wasn't sure if Rupp could catch him, but he wasn't going to give him the chance. "I believe that anything can happen, so I decided to go," Kirui says.
At 24 years old, Kirui had his first victory in his third marathon.
Rupp, also running his third marathon, was second in 2:09:58. Though he would have liked to have won, he was happy to be second -- and happy to be in Boston at all. A long bout of plantar fasciitis in his left foot had restricted his training and made it doubtful in the weeks before that he'd even be able to start. He wasn't certain he could race until receiving a pair of cortisone shots in late March. "Even though I didn't think I was in great physical shape, I was real pleased with the way that I ran mentally, the way I hung tough and [the way I] was able to still execute despite have a less than ideal buildup," he says.
Now Rupp and Kirui are returning for a rematch. They'll be part of a talented elite men's field that includes five other former champions for the 122nd Boston Marathon on April 16.
In the year since their late-race duel, Rupp and Kirui have been outstanding. Both have been training hard. Kirui says he's determined to defend his title, and Rupp wants to see what he can do with another year of experience and a healthy lead-in.
There are too many variables in a marathon -- weather, injuries and the rich talent pool -- to forecast another finish like last year. But each likes his prospects.
"Galen will definitely be much harder to beat than last year, regardless of how the race plays out," says Alberto Salazar, Rupp's coach and former Boston champ. "But Kirui or the others may also be in better shape than last year, so it's impossible to predict."
In just four marathons, Rupp has finished first at the 2016 Olympic marathon trials in Los Angeles (2:11:13), won a bronze at the Rio Olympics (2:10:05), come in second at Boston and won the Chicago Marathon in October in 2:09:20, a PR.
Since Boston the 31-year-old has won the U.S. 20K road championships, the Philadelphia Rock 'n' Roll Half (1:02.18) and the Rome Ostia Half Marathon in March in 59:47, his career best by 43 seconds and the second-fastest half by an American man, behind Ryan Hall's 59:43. "To be under 60 minutes, five weeks before [Boston], it's really exciting," says Rupp. "I'm really pleased with where I'm at right now."
So, too, is Salazar, who's coached Rupp for years and seen him succeed at every level, with nine U.S. championships (eight in the 10,000 meters, one in the 5,000) and a silver in the Olympic 10,000 at London in 2012.
Though Rupp is a relative newcomer to the marathon, he's no novice. "I believe that although he may have run less marathons than most of his main competitors, Galen has more top-level racing experience than anyone else in the race," says Salazar. "He's been running at a world-class level as a junior, then as a senior for 15 years. He's very consistent and handles the pressure very well."
Rupp says 2017 gave him confidence that his training -- with plenty of speed work to go with a lot of long runs -- is on point. With a long goal of running well in the 2020 Olympic marathon in Tokyo, he's trying to learn and make progress in every start, even when he isn't able to win, as at Boston last year. He learned he could compete even in trying circumstances.
"What my coach told me beforehand was, 'Obviously, things haven't been ideal, but this is the start of the race,'" Rupp says. "'And maybe things aren't going to be ideal before the start of a marathon in the future. You might have a rough patch, dinged up before the Olympic Trials or Olympics. That's a situation you have to be ready for, and you still have to be able to perform and run well.' That was the attitude I took before Boston."
He came out of Boston knowing he'd probably made a mistake in pushing too hard coming into the Newton Hills. He says Kirui played it smart, waiting to surge. "I probably should have laid off a little bit," he says. "You still have a ways to go once you get through those hills."
This year, the Portland native believes he'll have the experience to wait a bit and the strength to respond or take control at the end. His training sessions often focus on speed work after long workouts, when exhaustion has set in. "You need to be able to surge and sprint when you're really tired, after 20, 25 miles, and be able to win," says Rupp. "So that was a good lesson."
Kirui, now 25, has run just two high-profile events since Boston. In August, he ran 2:08:27 to win at the World Marathon Championships in London against an impressive field. Again, he used a late-race surge, about Mile 21, to take control and won by 1 minute and 12 seconds. In November, he finished sixth in the New Delhi Half Marathon in 1:00.04.
After that, he took some time off but then resumed serious training early this year.
Kirui, who lives in Keringet (elevation: 8,900 feet) in a mountainous area of western Kenya, has long been coached by Piet de Peuter of the Netherlands, but also started working with Italian Renato Canova before Boston last year. According to reports, Canova had Kirui do fewer miles than most marathoners, but put him through occasional long runs of as much as 23 miles. Kirui is again training hard for his return to Boston.
"I learned that you have to train hard and be focused, as nothing comes easy in life," he says.
But along with that hard work and training at altitude, Kirui has raw speed, too. In his first two marathons in 2016, he ran 2:06:27 at Amsterdam and 2:07:23 in Rotterdam, and he was third in the 10,000 meters at the World Under-20 Championships in 2012 at 28:30.47, and has run better than that since.
As Rupp and Kirui get set to run against each other again, Salazar says each is formidable. He says Rupp's strength and speed are "much better than ever before," but that doesn't guarantee a win. Kirui -- and the rest of the field -- could be equally well positioned.
Says Salazar, about last year's late-race duel: "I was hoping that Galen's natural speed would allow him to win at the end, but he'd lost too much conditioning with his injury, so he had nothing left at the end when Kirui surged. Also, Kirui has run 26:54 for 10K, so he has a lot of speed that very well may have prevailed, even if Galen hadn't been injured."