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  2000 BOSTON MARATHON

Kenyans writing history

Nine-year winning streak challenges new runners to add another chapter

By Shira Springer, Globe Staff, 4/14/2000

odesty prevents two-time Boston Marathon champion Moses Tanui from making predictions about Monday's race. When asked whom he thinks will win, Tanui coyly smiles, looks up at the ceiling in mock surprise, and carefully considers his answer. Considering that Kenyan runners have dominated the last nine races, Tanui would not appear arrogant if he forecasted a win by one of his countrymen. But he cannot bring himself to make such a statement. Instead, he leans forward as if telling a secret.

''We have a saying in Kenya,'' said Tanui. ''You cannot buy clothes for a child before the child is born.''

With the unpretentious style that makes the Kenyans both popular and successful, Tanui served notice that he and his countrymen take nothing for granted. The streak of nine consecutive Boston Marathon wins by a Kenyan man is a source of pride, but not an assurance of future wins. The last non-Kenyan to take home the title was Gelindo Bordin in 1990. This year, South Africa and Ethiopia have brought teams of runners in an effort to end the string of wins by their African neighbors.

But while Tanui won't predict a 10th consecutive win for a runner from his homeland, the 10 male Kenyan competitors entered in the 104th Boston Marathon are all top contenders and would like nothing more than to add to Kenyan lore. Of all the big city marathons contested each year, none draws the attention of the Kenyan public or generates more reverence from Kenyan marathoners than Boston. Aspiring long-distance runners from Eldoret, Elmarakwet, Kisii, and the Nandi District dream of competing in the Hub. And this year, with two Kenyan Olympic bids determined by Boston Marathon finishes, the motivation for each Kenyan to finish first has increased.

''I think Boston is a very unique marathon,'' said Tanui. ''It's a very challenging marathon with hard ups and downs. It's good competition for the Kenyan athletes, and we like competing in marathons that are a challenge. We like tough challenges so that we can prove that we are the best, and Boston is one of the toughest marathons in the world.''

The successes of their countrymen also provide motivation for the Kenyans. While the initial attraction may have been the challenge of the course, the almost decade-long success of Kenyans in Boston has made the local marathon practically a rite of passage. After winning last year, Joseph Chebet was invited to cross-country and track meets all over his country and paraded out as the Boston Marathon champion.

''Most Kenyans come to Boston because for the past years Kenyans have been performing well,'' said Ondoro Osoro, who will make his first appearance in Boston Monday and who ran the world's fastest debut marathon (2:06:54 in Chicago in 1998). ''When you go to a race you never know if you are going to win or not. It depends on how your training has been. But from the past performances of the fellow Kenyans, when someone [from Kenya] comes here, they [the fans] are much more impressed.''

The Kenyan winning streak stretches through the 1990s and contains many of the best marathoners the world has watched. Ibrahim Hussein won back-to-back after Bordin. Then Cosmas Ndeti became the first runner to win three consecutive marathons (1993, '94, '95) since Massachusetts resident Bill Rodgers accomplished the feat (1978, '79, '80). Tanui earned his place in Boston lore by winning the centennial edition in 1996 and triumphing again in 1998. Lameck Aguta took home the 1997 championship, and last year belonged to Chebet. The yet-to-be-determined 2000 titlist likely will become one of the gold medal favorites for the Sydney Olympics.

''The first time I went to Kenya was 1979 and what I thought then was that if these people ever get organized, then it can evolve from there,'' said agent and coach Kim McDonald, who supervises more than 50 Kenyan athletes. ''For Kenyans, this is their chance. Therefore, their willingness and eagerness to train hard is probably second to none as a group and a nation.

''You've got a few Americans who are willing to train very hard. You've got a few British people who are willing to train very hard. But as a group, there's nothing to compare with Kenyans. Winning the Boston Marathon for them is their opportunity to go back and purchase land and businesses and support their families.

''I think one of the key points in why there is now the history in the Boston Marathon is because the Boston Marathon to Kenyan marathon runners is the second biggest marathon after the Olympics. Therefore, it's continued to attract after Ibrahim Hussein, Cosmas Ndeti, Moses Tanui. This is the race they want to win. Because of the course and the weather, it might not be the fastest marathon in the world, but again, this is a race that matters in Kenya.''

The illustrious Kenyan history and the emphasis Kenyans put on the race have kept other nations out of the top spot. But representatives from Ethiopia and South Africa approach the race more from an individual perspective. They do not view the Kenyans as unbeatable, but believe the best prepared runner will win.

''The Kenyans train very hard for this race, but this year I'm trained better [than before],'' said Abner Chipu of South Africa, who finished fourth last year in 2:12:46. ''This year, I trust myself and I'm trained better. Maybe I can satisfy my mind. I'm not worried. We have to challenge each other. It's just like a game. You can win. You can lose. They can win. They can lose.''

South African Elana Meyer will compete in the women's race, where a Kenyan has yet to earn the title. Still, Meyer has experienced the worldwide success of the Kenyan women and can relate to Boston Marathon history that does not seem to favor her countrymen.

''I think at the end it's about individual performances,'' Meyer said. ''You do it on your own legs. For other runners, it might be intimidating to run against the Kenyan men because they have such a strong tradition in running. Surely, it helps to train in groups. I think it's a positive factor they [the South African men] trained together and trained hard.''

The Kenyan women, who will be represented by Lornah Kiplagat and Catherine Ndereba, may soon be replicating their countrymen's long-term, long-distance achievements. At least, that's what they hope.

''Slowly by slowly, it [the wins] will come,'' said Kiplagat. ''We have to be patient, but it will come.''

Added Ndereba: ''We are hoping they'll [the Kenyan women] soon be dominating [in Boston].''

Although they are too modest to outwardly declare themselves among the top contenders in both the men's and women's races, results of the 2000 Boston Marathon could easily add two more Kenyan names to the list of champions. Until then, the Kenyans will deflect attention away from past achievements and not proclaim themselves unbeatable. After all, the Kenyans may know better than anyone that training, not history, wins marathons. But with that being the case, everyone knows the Kenyans are in great shape. Even Tanui will briefly put aside his self-effacing manner and acknowledge the Kenyans are well prepared to protect their streak.

''Any Kenyan that is coming in can win the marathon,'' he said. ''Any time a Kenyan wins, that's our pride.''

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