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Kenyans hand out heartbreak

Keeping pace is an uphill climb

By John Powers, Globe Staff, 4/21/2003

They will troop to the starting line in Hopkinton for the 107th BAA Marathon just before noon today, as they have every year since 1988. If they sense who among the 10 of them is in the best form, the Kenyans are keeping it to themselves. All they know is that the odds are huge that by 2:08 or so, one of them is going to break the tape in Copley Square for the 12th time in 13 years.

"Can anyone not from Kenya win this race?" defending champion Rodgers Rop was asked a few days ago, as his colleagues/challengers sat around him. "No," he concluded matter of factly. "I don't think."

Only once since 1991, when Korea's Lee Bong Ju broke through two years ago, has a Kenyan not won the world's oldest and most revered 26-miler. Last year, the empire struck back in force as Rop and his running mates swept six of the top seven places, with countrywomen Margaret Okayo and Catherine Ndereba going 1-2 on the women's side for punctuation. So if you're betting today's daily double, go with the Nairobi connection, which has paid off twice in the past three years.

Despite Lee's startling triumph, the prospects for an outsider breaking out of the pack are daunting. "I have beaten Kenyans," says Ecuador's Silvio Guerra, who was second to Joseph Chebet in 1999 and to Lee in 2001. "The only problem is, they always bring different Kenyans."

This time the 27-year-old Rop, who's vying to become the first man to win consecutive titles since countryman Cosmas Ndeti won in 1993-94-95, is only the third-fastest Kenyan here. Both 26-year-old Vincent Kipsos (2:06:52 in Berlin last year) and 32-year-old Benjamin Kosgei Kimutai (2:07:26 in Amsterdam last year) have faster personal bests.

"Rop is one of the favorites for sure," says the 34-year-old Guerra, who would be the first South American champion since Colombia's Alvaro Mejia in 1971. "But there are other Kenyans with the same level."

Besides Rop, who ran 2:08:07 when he won New York last autumn, seven Kenyans have broken 2:10, as have Italy's Giacomo Leone (2:07:52), Estonia's Pavel Loskutov (2:08:53), Tanzania's John Nada Saya (2:08:57), and Guerra (2:09:49).

What Rop has is an undisputed aptitude for Boston's roller-coaster course and unquestionable credentials -- two firsts and a third in his only three marathons.

So, too, does Okayo, who set a course record here last year (2:20:43), has won five of her eight marathons, and has been out of the top three only once.

"Margaret has shown herself to be exceptional," acknowledges Marla Runyan, the top domestic hope here after running a startling 2:27:10 in her 26-mile debut at New York last year. "If she brings her A game . . ."

With Ndereba absent (she was second in London a week ago), Okayo is clearly the class of the field. But if today's predicted coolish weather and the Newton hills resurrect the back problems that undid her in New York, Okayo's challengers think they have a shot.

"She is the defending champion, but that was a year ago," says countrywoman Esther Kiplagat, who beat Okayo in New York. "Anybody can win this."

If anyone knocks off Okayo, it's likely to be Russia's Svetlana Zakharova, who ran 2:21:31 in Chicago last year, or Kenyan teammate Joyce Chepchumba, the Olympic bronze medalist who already has on her mantel the winner's trophy from virtually every major marathon -- London, Chicago, New York, Tokyo.

Though no US woman has prevailed here since Lisa Larsen-Weidenbach in 1985, the Americans have their best chance in a decade with the 34-year-old Runyan, whose speed will be a factor if she's still in the chase after Heartbreak Hill. "My goal is to improve my time and place," says Runyan, who was fourth in New York, "which means I'd like to be top three here."

If she is, it'll be the best showing by a domestic runner since Kim Jones placed second to Russia's Olga Markova in 1993. In any case, Runyan and Milena Glusac both figure to crack the top 10, the first American duo since Jones and Debbie Kilpatrick did it in 1997. "This isn't going to be a time trial," vows Runyan. "This is going to be a race. The time trial was last week."

This story ran on page D1 of the Boston Globe on 4/21/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

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