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Setting bar for greatness

Ndereba is proving no barrier insurmountable

By Joe Burris, Globe Staff, 4/14/2002

Catherine the Trendsetter: Sometimes, Catherine Ndereba would walk the 2 miles to her Nairobi primary school. Sometimes, she'd run. The school didn't serve lunch, so she'd have to return home, then hurry back to school. Counting the final 2 miles back home, that's 8 miles a day.

Seems odd, or perhaps fitting, that when the 12-year-old considered sports offered to girls at her school - soccer and netball - she took up the less-popular running instead.

Not on a track, mind you, but around her parents' farm with her four sisters.

That, and the daily school trek, led to Ndereba competing in cross-country meets.

''At the time,'' said the two-time defending Boston Marathon champion and tomorrow's favorite, ''I didn't even know how long a cross-country race was.''

Catherine the Goal-setter: In her first Boston race (1999), Ndereba was the only woman to stay with Ethiopian great Fatuma Roba through the Newton hills. But she eventually dropped back and finished in 2 hours 28 minutes 27 seconds, seventh place. Her skills were plentiful, her tactical knowledge paltry.

Subsequently, she called upon the services of Moroccan coach El-Mostafa Nechchadi at his training facility in Norristown, Pa.

''I remember the first time she came, she said to me, `I want to be a champion, I want to be like this athlete,' and at that time it was [fellow Kenyan marathoner] Tegla Loroupe dominating,'' said Nechchadi.

The coach considered her youth, determination, and extraordinary talent. ''My answer was, `You're going to be a champion,''' he said.

Catherine the Pace setter: Nechchadi set up the regimen. Ndereba followed with unrelenting drive and passion. God-given talent sprang forth like water from a broken tap.

And the rest of women's marathoning soon had to deal with Ndereba. In 2000, she waited, joined Roba at Heartbreak Hill, matched her stride for stride, then pulled away at the last mile to become the first Kenyan woman to win Boston, in 2:26:11.

Then she won Chicago in 2:21:33, the fastest women's time of 2000. Last year in Boston, she trimmed her 2000 time by more than two minutes, outracing Roba in the hills, running alone by Mile 20, and finishing in 2:23:53, setting a second-half course record of 1:10:51.

Her subsequent Chicago victory made Ndereba the first athlete to capture back-to-back wins at Boston and Chicago in the same years. She went on to win 15 of 17 races she entered last year, and was named the top marathoner in the world by Track and Field News, marathoner of the year by Running Times, and runner of the year by Runner's World.

It also led to the seemingly obvious moniker: Catherine the Great.

''I think I've done everything I'm supposed to do and the rest I leave to God,'' said Ndereba, a devoutly religious person who said her preparation today would involve time spent at a nearby Presbyterian church.

''I don't see anybody as competition, but what I figure is that everybody is in her top shape, his top shape,'' she said. ''They've stayed focused for this race. Everybody wants to win. It's a matter of who will have the best race day.''

At a time when many wonder if the Kenyan men can return to the winner's circle after having their decade-long streak snapped last year by Korean Lee Bong Ju, Ndereba's feat is testament to the remarkable strides Kenyan women have made in running in recent years.

Prior to Ndereba's wins, the Kenyan women's most memorable moment at Boston was Loroupe's dramatic collapse over the latter portion of the 1996 race, giving Uta Pippig the triumph.

Yet Loroupe's successes in other races made her a standard for runners like Ndereba. ''In Kenya we didn't have a lot of women athletes, and since we see stars like Loroupe, we've been inspired,'' Ndereba said.

With running, parenthood (she and husband Anthony Maina have a 5-year-old daughter, Jane), and a job as a telephone operator in Kenya's prisons department, Ndereba maintains a busy schedule.

Since beginning competitive running at 21, Ndereba, now 29, has been consistently ranked among the top road racers in the world, though she took some time off in 1997, when Jane was born.

Her training program in Nairobi includes running 110 miles a week. She begins with runs as long as two hours at 6 a.m., yet unlike many Kenyan runners does not have an afternoon regimen. She came to Norristown about a month ago.

''It is difficult,'' she said of her schedule, ''but I have God on my side.''

Catherine the Goal-setter, Part 2: ''She said in the press conference that she was going for something special,'' said Nechchadi, ''and they asked her what was it, and she said, `I'm going to go for the world record.'

''Afterward we talked about it, and I said, `OK, that's a big commitment, so you'll have to stay committed.' So Catherine did her homework. She trained hard with that goal in mind, to break the world record.''

At the time, it was inconceivable for a woman to run a marathon in less than 2:20. Ndereba trained toward achieving that goal.

Then came a surprise: On Sept. 30, Japan's Olympic women's marathon champion, Naoko Takahashi, became the first woman to break 2:20, running a 2:19:46 in Berlin.

''I thought it was great for her,'' said Ndereba. ''She broke the barrier most of us thought it was not possible for women to break. When I heard the news, I said, `Maybe in the future you can hear of a woman running in 2 hours 15 minutes.''

That's the frame of mind Ndereba took into Chicago one week later, when she shattered Takahashi's mark with a clocking of 2:18:47. Afterward, Ndereba was presented the Distinguished Service Medal by Kenya president Daniel arap Moi. The prisons department also promoted her to senior sergeant.

''My lifestyle did change, but not that much,'' she said. ''Everybody knows who Catherine Ndereba is. They know I'm the Kenyan woman who won Boston Marathon. It's good to be well known but I don't let it carry me.''

Boston is the first marathon for Ndereba since Chicago. She said she is healthy and well prepared, but when asked about setting a record here, she stopped short of being Catherine the Prognosticator.

''I can't say much about this course because everyone here knows the Boston Marathon course is a challenging course,'' she said. ''It has got a couple of hills, not like Chicago. It's a very flat course. I'm just aiming to have a good race.''

This story ran on page D14 of the Boston Globe on 4/14/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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