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Kenyans' 10-year win streak finished by South Korea's Lee

By Barbara Huebner, Globe Staff, 4/17/2001

nding a decade of domination by the Kenyans, a Korean running in honor of his late father yesterday donned the laurel wreath as the men's winner of the 105th Boston Marathon.

''I knew the Kenyan delegation was a major opponent, but in a marathon the major opponent is yourself,'' said Lee Bong Ju, who until yesterday was better known for his spectacular second-place finish in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta than for his many impressive victories. ''I focused on myself and didn't pay much attention to the others.''

With his win in 2 hours 9 minutes 43 seconds, Lee became the first Korean to win Boston since 1950, when Kee Yong Ham led a 1-2-3 finish of his countrymen.

''Fifty years is a long time,'' said Lee through a translator, ''and a long time makes this honor much bigger.''

Lee's father, Lee Hae Ku, died last month after a lenghty illness.

The $80,000 victory no doubt will be greeted with great joy in Lee's homeland. In 1950, electricity was usually shut off at night in Seoul because of tensions with North Korea but it was ordered to be kept on the night of the Marathon so South Koreans could listen to the Voice of America broadcast.

Finishing second yesterday, as he did two years ago, was Silvio Guerra of Ecuador, in 2:10:07, with Kenyan Joshua Chelang'a, running his first marathon, third in 2:10:29. Rod DeHaven of Madison, Wis., was sixth in 2:12:41, the best finish by an American since Mark Plaatjes in 1993.

Defending champion Elijah Lagat and two-time winner Moses Tanui, both of Kenya, were nonfactors. Tanui finished 12th while Lagat, who struggled with lower back pain from the first mile, was 17th.

With sunny skies and a temperature of 56 degrees, conditions were near ideal at the start, and South Africans Makhosonke Fika and Simon Mpholo ran to an early lead. By 2 miles they had almost 200 meters on a pack of 30, and soon were slapping hands with spectators as they cruised along. By 9 miles the pack had closed the gap, catching up during a fluid-stop fiasco in which Fika stopped to sort through several bottles until he found his own.

The 10-mile mark was reached in a surprisingly slow 49:45; the field featured eight runners with personal bests under 2:10 and they apparently were watching each other, not daring to make an early move with the tougher half of the course ahead. Still in the hunt were a number of Americans, including DeHaven, Mark Coogan, and Josh Cox, who briefly took the lead just before the midway point. Coming into Wellesley Center, the pack began to spread out, and at the halfway point (1:05:19) the South Africans briefly retook the lead.

Just past 14 miles, the 25-year-old Cox fell off the pack, suffering from a side stitch ''that felt like someone was stabbing me with a knife.''

By the Newton firehouse turn onto Commonwealth Avenue, the pack was down to 13, and on the downside of the first of the Newton hills it slimmed even more. At that point, the race began for real, with Guerra deciding to push the pace. When no one responded, he settled back in.

Going up Heartbreak Hill, just after the 20-mile mark, Ethiopian Gezahegne Abera - one of the three runners in last year's closing sprint down Boylston Street - began to look distressed and fell back almost instantly. Although he managed to finish 16th in 2:17:04, the 2000 Olympic gold medalist and runner-up here last year was in the emergency room at New England Baptist Hospital last night, under observation for a suspected sinus infection and preparing to undergo an MRI.

Soon the pack was down to three, and at Mile 22 Lee took a slim lead over Guerra and Chelang'a. With 2 miles left, he was all alone. Unlike the last Korean to win Boston, who had to walk four times in the final miles because of exhaustion, Lee sailed to the win, pumping his fist as he crossed the finish line.

It was not the first major win for Lee, who triumphed at the Fukuoka Marathon in 1996 to be ranked the world's No. 1 marathoner that year. But the victory came at a key time. After having finished just three seconds behind South Africa's Josiah Thugwane to earn silver in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Lee was crushed by a 24th-place showing in Sydney.

''I was disappointed and it undermined my confidence a lot,'' he said. ''I felt if I didn't pull myself together it could be the end of my career.''

Instead, he regrouped two months later to be runner-up at Fukuoka in 2:09:04. Although it was another in a string of second-place finishes - Rotterdam 1998, Dong-A International 1996, Tokyo 2000 - it restored his confidence.

As for the Kenyans, their showing yesterday of four men in the top 10 was hardly dismal. Still, the four didn't include top guns Tanui, Lagat, or Chebet, who didn't finish.

''I think they have more pressure than us,'' said Guerra.

This story ran on page G01 of the Boston Globe on 4/17/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

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