BOSTON – Yuki Kawauchi seemed like just another spotlight-seeking, early front-runner when he darted out to take the lead at the start of Monday’s Boston Marathon.
It turns out the veteran marathoner saved plenty for the finish, as well.
Kawauchi battled a steady headwind and blinding wet conditions to surge with a mile (1.6 km) to go, overtaking Geoffrey Kirui to win his first Boston Marathon.
“I’ve been running for 26 years, and in 26 years this is by far the best day of my life,” Kawauchi said afterward through an interpreter.
Kawauchi crossed the finish line in a time of 2 hours, 15 minutes, 58 seconds. He becomes the first Japanese man to win Boston since Toshihiko Seko took the title in 1987. He is the first Asian runner to win the race since South Korea’s Lee Bong-Ju in 2001.
Kawauchi is the ninth Japanese champion overall, with past winners including Morio Shigematsu in 1965 and Kenji Kimihara in 1966.
“I don’t think anyone here thought I would win. This race proves that we never know what can happen in marathon,” Kawauchi said.
The Saitama native, who has won over 30 marathons and is known as the “citizen runner” for his work in the prefectural government, was recognized by Guinness World Records last month for completing the highest number of marathons in under 2 hours and 20 minutes.
Kawauchi joked that the wind and cold were the “best conditions possible.”
Kenya’s Geoffrey Kirui was second in 2:18:23, followed by American Shadrack Biwott in 2:18:35. Biwott’s result marked a huge day for the American men which placed three runners in the top 5. It was the second straight year that six American men placed in the top 10. Tyler Pennel was fourth (2:18:57) and Andrew Bumbalough finished fifth (2:19:52).
On the women’s side, Desiree Linden finished placed first in 2:39.54. Hiroko Yoshitomi was Japan’s top female finisher, placing 10th in 2:48.29
Meanwhile, the usually strong Kenyan team had only Kirui in the men’s top 10.
It is the first major title for Kawauchi, who lists Bill “Boston Billy” Rodgers — a four-time winner of the race — as one of his mentors. It was also the person who Kawauchi says encouraged him to run Boston.
The last time a Japanese runner finished on top of the podium at the Boston Marathon was the same year Kawauchi was born.
“I can’t help but feel the hand of fate in this,” he said.
He’s also hoping this can be a watershed moment for a new generation of runners on a continent that is not known for its marathoners.
“It’s been a long time since an Asian has won here,” Kawauchi said. “The level of the sport in Asia is not at its peak right now. I hope this will help to turn it around.”
Kawauchi sprinted out to an early lead before falling back. He surged several times during the soggy, windy race before finally sustaining it late to pass Kirui.
Front-running was one of “several scenarios” Kawauchi said he considered before the race.
“It played out that way,” he said.
Though he had never won a major marathon crown, the 31-year-old competes frequently. He ran 12 marathons in 2017 alone, winning five. He says he runs so many marathons mostly as a training device, with so few races in his home prefecture.
In majors, he finished fourth in Tokyo in 2010 and third in 2011 in the same race.
Kirui seemed to be headed for the victory when he had passed the toughest stretch of Heartbreak Hill at around the 22-mile (35.4 -km) mark. He was maintaining about a 90-second gap.
“At that point I was trying to control the race. It was not my plan to push,” Kirui said.
It’s why he said he was not surprised that Kawauchi was able to make the move he did in the final few miles.
“The last mile was very tough,” Kirui said. “The legs become stiff so that gave me a challenge.”
Kawauchi was in almost a dead sprint when he passed Kirui with just about three miles to go. He was soon all alone as Kirui steadily faded.
Biwott nearly got on the podium in last year’s race, finishing fourth.
He’s a native of Kenya, becoming an American citizen in 2012.
“I can’t believe today was the day. But I knew it was going to happen someday,” Biwott said of breaking through with his first major top-three finish.
Kawauchi said he doesn’t plan to change his training regimen, even vowing to undertake a pre-planned run on Tuesday.
“Maybe one hour,” he said.
And how long is that, exactly?