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WOMEN'S RUNNER-UP

Ndereba far from second-rate

By Michael Smith, 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

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No shame. She did, after all, beat the course record. Look at it this way: Catherine Ndereba made 44 saves yesterday but needed to make a 45th. She tossed four touchdown passes on a day when the opposing quarterback threw five. She pitched a complete game, yet lost, 1-0.

If there were to be a do-over of the 106th Boston Marathon today, the odds would favor Ndereba three-peating as women's champion with her time of 2 hours 21 minutes 12 seconds. But she had the misfortune (she probably would drop the prefix) of only bettering Uta Pippig's eight-year-old record by 33 seconds as fellow Kenyan Margaret Okayo was doing the same by 62.

Give Okayo credit? Tip her hat? Such gracious gestures are for runners-up who don't pledge allegiance to the same red-black-and-green flag. After Ndereba crossed the finish line at Copley Square, the first thing she did was find Okayo and give her a warm hug. It was the kind of sincere embrace sisters share, not mere acquaintances. And the smile ''Catherine the Great'' wore was one of triumph even in conquest.

''I was happy that Margaret won,'' said Ndereba, the world record-holder who failed in her bid to become the third woman to win three consecutive Bostons and instead became the first since Olga Markova in '94 not to three-peat. ''I'm not discouraged. I'm very happy and very proud that my fellow Kenyan athlete won. We are on the same team.''

Ndereba had two objectives. She met both. ''I am very happy with my [time]. My aim was to break the course record, and I did it,'' she said. The other was to hear the Kenyan national anthem played first during the medal presentation. For whom was irrelevant.

''She is my fellow Kenyan athlete,'' repeated Ndereba, who apparently harbors no ill will toward her homeland for leaving her off the 2000 Olympic team. ''I felt proud to hear the national anthem, if not for me then for Margaret. Our anthem was still being played.''

At Route 128, after an early battle between Ndereba and China's Sun Yingjie (who finished fourth in 2:27:26), there was no doubt ''O God of all creation/Bless this our land and nation'' would be heard for a third straight Marathon, as the Kenyans started to put distance between themselves and the rest of the field.

The countrywomen ran together - side by side once in a while or Ndereba in the lead for a moment here and there - but Ndereba was in pursuit of Okayo most of the way. The mano y mano scene was reminiscent of Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley, circa 1982, and the finish promised to be much closer than that of the 2000 Marathon, when Ndereba finished 16 seconds ahead of Irina Bogacheva, the slimmest margin of victory in the women's race.

Okayo swore afterward that she was mostly unaware of the Great looming a few steps behind. She said she ran ''her race.'' She was indeed alone in her ignorance of the woman who finished last year's Chicago Marathon in 2:18:47. Judging from the way the champ was keeping pace with the challenger, one was inclined to think Ndereba was waiting for the right time to kick and end the suspense. It happened the other way around.

As the pair approached Kenmore Square (1 mile remaining), Ndereba's right hamstring began to ache, so much so that she slowed for water in the race's most critical stage. Okayo just kept churning. By the time she hit Boylston Street, it really was her race.

''I couldn't push,'' Ndereba explained. ''As we were going, I could see Margaret was strong, and I was just feeling OK. If Margaret won, it would have been much better.''

Okayo over Ndereba wasn't quite Douglas over Tyson or the Patriots over the Rams, but it was an upset just the same. Ndereba was the world's top-ranked marathon runner according to Track and Field News, as well as Runner's World's runner of the year in 2001. She is the only marathoner - male or female - to win both the Boston and Chicago marathons in consecutive years. She won 15 of 17 major races last year. Ndereba extended the Kenyan tradition of dominance in Boston to the women's side with her victory two years ago.

She would not and could not lose, especially to a 4-foot-11-inch, 86-pound Boston Marathon novice. Or so we thought.

''There was a lot of pressure on me,'' Ndereba acknowledged. ''Not just from the media and back home, but from the other competitors. They were all looking at me.''

All but one.

This story ran on page D2 of the Boston Globe on 4/16/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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