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2000 BOSTON MARATHON

Dramatic twist just adds to race

Ethiopian, Kenyans spar with each other during and after race

By Michael Holley, Globe Staff, 4/18/00

Yesterday's drama began in Framingham, in front of a Magnavox store. That was the point at which a cluster of runners - most of them Kenyans - passed early leader Makoto Sasaki and quickly determined the winning pace of the Boston Marathon.

It was fitting that this took place near a television shop, because the men's race was teeming with made-for-TV possibilities. There was a great Jenny Craig-inspired medical story. There was a great ending, with three seconds separating the top three finishers. There was also a great case of whining.

Elijah Lagat, a 33-year-old Kenyan, won the race in 2:09:47. A 22-year-old Ethiopian, Gezahenge Abera, had the same time and finished second. Two-time winner Moses Tanui, also Kenyan, was three seconds behind the leaders.

With their fascinating challenging of each other over the final 4 miles, the three men thrilled the chilled souls who watched them fight fatigue and a vicious headwind. They were on Beacon Street and it wasn't clear who would win. They were on Boylston Street and it wasn't clear who would win. They were a few hundred feet from the finish and it was still in doubt. But this was one of those classics in which the winner was the only one who could truly enjoy it afterward.

"I was running between two Kenyans, and had a hard time dealing with some pushing and kicking,'' Abera said through an interpreter. "I can't say if the pushing and kicking was intentional, but with one [Kenyan] in front and one behind, that was a strain on my muscles, and resulted in me not finishing first.''

In this scenario, let's hope that something was lost in the translation. Abera doesn't really believe that, does he? It is true that the Kenyans dominate Boston. At the beginning of races, they run as a collective. Trying to get by them is like trying to pass a fleet of 18-wheelers; you don't pass unless they let you.

This, understandably, can lead to some road rage. Especially if it happens for the better part of 26.2 miles. But, according to Tanui, that didn't happen yesterday. He said he was kicked and stepped on as well, but that's part of being in the lead. He also said at one point he stepped aside so Abera could get by, but the runner chose to follow him instead.

"He is accusing Kenyans,'' an angry Tanui said when told of Abera's remarks. "These are his problems.''

Since the race was an Olympic qualifier for the Kenyans, Tanui is now an Olympian despite his finish. He was asked if there is any solace in the fact that he will be in Sydney this year. He paused for a while and then said, "No.''

He didn't quite admit it, but he was shocked that he lost to Lagat. The two are friends and have trained together. But Lagat is a self-described former fat kid who started running to save his life. As recently as 1993, Lagat did not consider himself an athlete ("I was not an athlete; I was fat.''). He said he lost weight but, "I was not doing it to be an athlete; I was doing it for the sake of the doctor.''

Lagat was having difficulty breathing when he saw his doctor. He was told that his excess weight could lead to death or heart problems. So he began running because he liked the exercise. As recently as 1997, the resident of Kenya's Nandi District was employed by the Ministry of Education. He was teaching when Tanui was coming off his first Boston win in '96. Now, the former Heavy E has a wreath of his own.

Tanui was asked if losing to Lagat surprised him. He said it was a tough question, and that the only thing that matters is that Lagat won.

The win was the 10th straight here for Kenyans. It shouldn't surprise anyone if that streak grows to 20. Consider that last year's winner, Joseph Chebet, is considered the top runner in the world. He finished eighth yesterday, overshadowed by a marathoning neophyte. That should give everyone an indication of how much talent there is in East Africa. It also should be obvious to the Kenyans that, because of their success, one of yesterday's themes is here to stay: Drama.

As the Kenyans continue to dominate, more accusations will come. That always happens to extraordinary performers. There will be more Aberas, saying that a Kenyan conspiracy led to a loss. There will also be increasing jealousy and contempt.

But as many runners from the Great Rift Valley are happy to tell you, the reason they do so well on Boston's hilly course is, simply, that it reminds them of home. There are temperature differences and cultural differences, but running here is like training for them.

There was a slight Marathon alteration for the Kenyans yesterday. This one called for a dramatic ending. But, really, how much mystery was involved? At the end of the day, you still knew a Kenyan was going to win.



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