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Dominators outdone

After a decade of wins, they can't keep up

By Allen Lessels, Globe Staff, 4/17/2001

t was getting to crunch time in the 105th Boston Marathon, and Kenyan Joshua Chelang'a, his task getting tougher by the stride, looked over his shoulder.

''I was looking for my fellow countrymen to come and assist me,'' Chelang'a said.

But no one was there.

There was no Moses Tanui ready to make a run for a third Boston title. No Elijah Lagat in position to defend his 2000 win. No Joseph Chebet to add a victory to the one he collected in 1999.

A Boston Marathon with no Kenyans up front? Unheard of.

It was not a total bust for the Kenyans. They did have Chelang'a grab third, and they took the fourth and fifth spots, too. They had six finishers in the top 12.

But it was not the type of day the Kenyans have come to expect in Boston.

For 10 straight years, a Kenyan had won the men's race. Last year, five of the first six runners were Kenyans and the one interloper was Gezahegne Abera of neighboring Ethiopia, who was a close second.

So yesterday, in contrast, was rough.

Eventually, it was all up to Chelang'a, a 28-year-old making his marathon debut. He was up there in a three-man pack in the closing miles.

''I tried to go with the front-runners,'' Chelang'a said. ''But I could not make it at the last. I have no experience.''

Korea's Lee Bong Ju pulled away and Ecuador's Silvio Guerra followed, and Lee eventually broke the Kenyan hold on the race. Chelang'a finished third, 22 seconds behind Guerra and more than a minute ahead of countrymen David Busienei (fourth) and Mbarek Hussein (fifth).

Timothy Cherigat, Joseph Kipkemboi, and Tanui were another block of Kenyans in the 10-12 spots. Lagat, who had pains in his lower back, was 17th. Chebet dropped out.

''At 2 or 3 kilometers, I started to feel back pain,'' Lagat said. ''I was trying to fight and was forcing myself and hoped it could go away.''

It didn't.

Guerra wasn't sure where the rest of the Kenyans were, but he figured he had enough to deal with in Lee and Chelang'a.

''I didn't know what happened, but for me it was more relaxing with three runners there,'' Guerra said. ''It's better than having 20. You know you have a chance to win the race or at least be in the top three.

''But [Chelang'a] is a fast guy. I knew who he was. And I knew about the Korean. He's a very strong man, a very tough guy. I tried to take off several times, but they didn't let me.''

Eventually, Lee did the taking off and Guerra got away from Chelang'a.

The pressure, Guerra said, was all on the Kenyans. ''It's always like the Kenyans are the favorites,'' he said. ''It's, `Which one do you think will win?' Which is fine. They are running so great right now and they are the ones winning all the races. I don't blame people for that. They can be the favorites, but sometimes that makes pressure for them to win.''

Guerra, on the other hand, felt none. His first time here, 1999, he led for 6 miles after Mile 16 but ended up second to Chebet. Last year he was 10th, nearly 41/2 minutes behind Lagat.

''I just came here to do my best and hang in there and see what happened,'' he said. ''I didn't have any strategy for the race. It was just to hang in as long as I can. With the Africans, you never know, it can be the first 5 kilometers or the first 10 kilometers and they can take off.''

This time, they did not, and the results won't hurt the dynamics of the Marathon, Guerra said.

''For next year, there will be more expectations for the race,'' said Guerra. ''There will be more interest. It will not just be Kenyans. It will be the Korean guy and the Ecuador guy and other guys competing with the Kenyans.''

Which, in turn, will up the ante for the other runners.

''It is nice,'' Guerra said. ''But at the same time, there will be more pressure for me. I will have to prepare to not get too much pressure.''

And count on the Kenyans to take the same approach they've taken here for years.

''Most of us train together,'' Lagat said. ''And we expect one of us to win.''

Usually it's a good bet. It just wasn't yesterday.

This story ran on page G02 of the Boston Globe on 4/17/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

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