Scott Fauble knew that his chance at the laurel wreath was gone once his African rivals disposed of him along the Brookline flats. Not that the man from Colorado had any fantasies about outkicking guys who literally were a mile ahead of him in terms of personal-best times.
But when Fauble crossed the finish line in seventh place in Monday’s 123rd Boston Marathon with a time of 2 hours, 9 minutes, and 9 seconds, he’d beaten his real rival — the Olympic clock. So did Jared Ward of Utah, who came in just behind Fauble in 2:09:25.
That was significantly faster than the new qualifying standard of 2:11:30 for next year’s Tokyo Games, and it marked the first time that Americans other than Olympic medalist Galen Rupp had gone under 2:10 since Meb Keflezighi ran 2:08:37 to win Boston in 2014.
“It’s about dang time!” declared Ward. “We think we’re sub-2:10 guys that just need the right race for that to come together, and today it came together for Scott and I.”
Their performances didn’t necessarily earn them a ticket to Tokyo. As of now, that will be decided at the end of February at the US trials in Atlanta, where the top three finishers who’ve achieved the time standard will make the team. But going below 2:11:30 gave Fauble and Ward a huge head start.
“It definitely feels like there’s a monkey off my back,” said Ward, who finished sixth in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. “I can go and focus on doing whatever I need to do over the next 10 months to be ready for the Olympic trials and not have to worry about the standard.”
Off the hook, too, are Jordan Hasay, who finished third in the women’s race in 2:25:20 and Desiree Linden, the two-time Olympian who was fifth in 2:27:00, easily under the female cutoff of 2:29:30.
“I definitely felt out there that I was just trying to practice competing well in Tokyo,” said Hasay, who missed all of last year after fracturing a foot.
None of that urgency would have been necessary had the international federation, which determines the qualifying standards for the Games, not created turmoil last month by abruptly lowering the times from 2:19:00 for men and 2:45:00 for women.
The IAAF, which ordinarily would have trouble structuring a two-car funeral, also created other ways to qualify, such as placing in the top 10 at a World Marathon Major such as Boston or through its new ranking system. To put it mildly, it’s a baffling hodgepodge.
“I’m a bit confused myself,” said Hasay. “I think today if you had top 10, you do get the Olympic standard. I’m not sure what USA Track & Field has decided for the trials at this point. I will be there with whatever you need to do and out there competing, just do my best. I’m glad to just have what I believe to be the standard now.”
It’s not just the faster standard that’s the challenge, it’s the narrow window during which to achieve it — between the beginning of this year and the end of May next year. A world-class sprinter has a chance every week during the outdoor season to do it. A marathoner gets three chances a year, max.
With the World Championships in Qatar scheduled for the fall and the races starting at midnight to avoid the scorching heat, most Olympic hopefuls realistically would have to try getting the standard in Berlin (Sept. 29), Chicago (Oct. 13), or New York (Nov. 3). That would throw a kink into preparations for the trials, where meeting the Games standard will be a challenge on a hilly course with the temperature pushing 60 degrees.
Clearly, the best option for the Americans was to take their shot here and now.
“I had a goal to run sub-2:10 for a long time and I thought this might be the day for it,” said Ward, whose personal best had been 2:11:30 in Rio.
So when he noticed the huge lead pack slowing coming through Natick, Ward went to the front by 10 yards.
“I don’t want to throw away a few miles at 5:10,” he reckoned.
At 17 miles, just before the firehouse turn, Ward and Fauble had the lead to themselves. Going into the Newton hills, Fauble, who came in as a 2:12:28 marathoner, found himself alone in front of a whole bunch of faster Africans, which he found baffling.
“They were playing this cat-and-mouse game where they would push on the hills and slow on the rest bits in between,” Fauble observed. “I was like, ‘That’s not going to go well for me.’ ”
So he pushed the pace past Heartbreak and beyond.
“Not a lot of tactics went on there,” Fauble said. “It was just me trying to get to the finish line as quickly as possible.”
His time, which was more than three minutes lower than his previous best, would have won every Boston race before 1982. Ward’s time would have put him on the Rio podium.
“The talent’s there,” he said. “It’s just getting to the right race at the right time.”
Maybe Ward and Fauble will have that race again in Atlanta and maybe not. But what they know now is that whoever beats them there will have to run a 2:09. Not all triumphs on the road to Tokyo come with laurel wreaths.