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Rop's win puts Kenyan men back in power

By John Powers, Globe Staff, 4/16/2002

   
 TOP FINISHERS

Men  |  Women  |  Wheelchairs  |

 COVERAGE

Women: Okayo KOs course in debut
Men: Rop puts Kenyans back on top
Runner-up: Ndereba is still first-rate
Ryan: Their absence didn't last long
US runners: Support not there
Beardsley: He returns for more fun
Masters: At 43, Kipkemboi in prime
Wheelchairs: VanDyk wins again
Notebook: Runners kept their cool
The start: Meeting first challenge
First-person: To end, the hard way
Heartbreak Hill: Over the top
SporTView: Coverage lagged
Faces in pack: Miles of smiles

 PHOTO GALLERIES

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He'd run one marathon before, so he knew he could go the distance. He'd seen a video of the course, so he knew all about the hills. And he knew that a man named Rodgers had won a few here.

So Rodgers Rop figured there was no reason why he couldn't win the Boston Marathon in his first shot and bring the world's most hallowed title back to Kenya.

''Last year I was not happy because we lose it to Korea,'' the 26-year-old Nairobi policeman said yesterday, after he'd held off countryman Christopher Cheboiboch by three seconds to win the 106th edition of the world's oldest annually contested marathon in 2 hours 9 minutes 2 seconds, the fastest time here in four years.

Until Lee Bong Ju outran them last April, the Kenyans had won the laurel wreath here 10 straight times. Yesterday was about pride and payback. ''I say, OK, we have to reclaim our title,'' said Rop, who finished third in New York last autumn in 2:09:51 in his only previous 26-miler. ''It has been a tradition of Kenya to win in Boston. I have to try my best to win.''

So the Empire struck back, with Fred Kiprop and Mbarak Hussein photo-finishing for third and fourth (2:09:45) in front of Lee, who faded in the hills and finished fifth in 2:10:30. Keith Dowling, the top American, was 15th.

''I would have been happier with a better result,'' conceded Lee, who was trying to become the first repeat champion since Cosmas Ndeti in 1995. ''But it is not necessarily a bad result.''

For the Kenyans, anything but a victory here is a bad result. So, as always, they brought half a dozen runners here with the street creds to win. Joshua Chelang'a, David Kiptum Busienei, and Hussein placed 3-4-5 here last year. Three others - Kiprop, Simon Bor, and Chicago victor Ben Kimondiu - had gone under 2:09.

The Kenyans had the numbers and they had the pedigree. Once they hit the 20-mile mark, they had the race, too, with five of them ahead of the field. So Rop, who's the world record-holder at 25K, thought it would be amusing to turn the stretch run into an intramural championship with an $80,000 pot. He kicked it up a gear, then turned and beckoned to Cheboiboch and the others to join him. ''There was no one close to me so we could push together,'' Rop lamented.

For 16 miles, Rop had all the company he wanted, surrounded by a pack that numbered as many as three dozen as they headed into Framingham. For a guidon, they had Kenya's Elly Rono, the 6-foot-3-inch thin tower who resides in Chapel Hill, N.C., and who ushered the group as far as Wellesley Hills before fading to 16th.

This was the ''you-go-first'' tactical grind that everyone had predicted when the forecast was for temperatures near 80. After 5 miles, the pace was nearly a minute off the 1994 course record, as the leaders dawdled along cautiously.

But the sun never popped through the mist after the morning showers departed and when it became clear that the mercury wouldn't even hit 60, the Kenyans figured it was time to do some pack-busting.

Rop had made a move around the midway point, but his companions still had plenty of juice left. Coming out of Wellesley Hills to Newton Lower Falls, just before the rise over Route 128 gives a nasty foretaste of the trimountain ahead, Rop tested them again with a sizzling 4:38 mile, the second-fastest split of the day.

''I felt it was my time to break the group,'' said Rop, who cut his teeth on Kenyan hills, spent the last month training in cool weather in Germany, and treats 10-milers like fun runs. ''I broke away and they couldn't follow me anymore.''

That stretch, which goes through the brief flat that coach Bill Squires calls ''Hell's Alley,'' was Bill Rodgers's favorite place to throw in a surge. By the time the leaders turned at the firehouse at Route 30 and headed into the Newton hills, a pack of nearly 20 was dwindling to five.

Lee, who was fighting a cold, had lost contact. So had Ecuador's Silvio Guerra, who'd been runner-up twice but struggled home 10th yesterday. As they went through the hills, the lead group was down to Rop, Cheboiboch, Kiprop, Chelang'a, and Elias Chebet, whose brother Joseph won in 1999.

Coming off Heartbreak, with the 5-mile homestretch looming, Rop turned around and gave Cheboiboch the come-go-with-me signal. Not then, Cheboiboch decided. Not during the Haunted Mile going into Cleveland Circle that had interred dozens of contenders over the past century.

As they headed down Beacon Street, though, Cheboiboch drew close enough to tap Rop on the shoulder. By Coolidge Corner, with a couple of miles to go, Rop was holding a 25-yard lead.

Thus began a cat-and-mouse game that played out all the way to Copley Square. Rop would look at his watch, then glance over his shoulder. Cheboiboch, grimacing from effort, would sprint after him. And Rop would lope tantalizingly out of reach.

''I thought I could catch him,'' said Cheboiboch, who came closer to the victor than all but four men in history and set a personal best by 1:45. ''He was a little bit ahead of me.''

And at least 40 seconds ahead of everybody else. Once Rop ascertained that his closest pursuers all sang the same anthem, he figured he could take his ease. Lee, who had spoiled the party last year, was out of sight and out of mind. The Empire slept easy last night.

This story ran on page D1 of the Boston Globe on 4/16/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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