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Rolling Rop

Despite stiff competition, 2002 champ feels no pressure

By John Powers, Globe Staff, 4/20/2003

He and his wife wouldn't have done it if he'd won a different marathon. Rotterdam Rop? "Not that," Rodgers Rop said, shaking his head.

But naming his first-born son "Boston" sounded appropriate, given the circumstances. Rop had won his Patriots Day debut here last April and gone back to a hero's reception in his Kenyan village. The next day, his wife, Lilian, presented him with a boy.

Boston Rop is walking now, his father reports, and appears to be on track for the 2030 starting line in Hopkinton. And Papa Rop is back, bidding to become the first champion to repeat here since Cosmas Ndeti in 1995.

"I don't see any pressure," said the 27-year-old Nairobi policeman, who's looking to become the 12th Kenyan victor in 13 years. "I just take everything to be simple. I came here as a competitor, like the others."

Rop was just a promising face among a crowd of his countrymen last year, but after dashing out of the Newton hills and holding off teammate Christopher Cheboiboch by three seconds in 2:09:02, the fastest time here in four years, he became an instant personage back home in Nandi District.

"All the people came out to welcome me," said Rop, who received five sheep and two cows from the villagers to go along with his $80,000 winner's check from Boston.

Then, after defending his Berlin 25K title, Rop won New York in November, beating Cheboiboch again, and became a road racing phenomenon. Three marathons, two victories.

"He had two tough fights," said Bill Rodgers, who also did the Boston-New York double. "Cheboiboch didn't give up. But Rop's time in New York [2:08:07] was a hell of a time."

Rop is expecting another tough fight tomorrow, primarily from his homeboys.

"All the Kenyan athletes who are here are prepared," he said. "They are in good shape."

Two of them -- Vincent Kipsos (2:06:52) and Benjamin Kosgei Kimutai (2:07:26) -- have faster personal bests than Rop's 2:08:07, as does Italy's Giacomo Leone (2:07:52).

Yet Rop is supremely well suited for Boston's undulant course, which he made a point of preparing for a year ago.

"I heard it is rolling," he said. "Up and down."

Rop thought it would be tougher, especially the notorious hills, which he'd viewed on a video. But he had plenty of juice coming off Heartbreak, so much that he turned around and beckoned Cheboiboch to come with him.

"He evidently loves a hilly course, and he's not afraid to bust a race up," said Rodgers, who had similar skills and tastes. "He'll throw in a surge. He's like a boxer."

Last time, Rop made a move midway through, hoping to shake things up. Then he threw in a nasty surge -- a 4:38 mile coming out of Wellesley Hills -- and busted the lead pack of nearly 20 down to five.

But when Rop pulled off the double on New York's more urban topography, he showed he was more than a hill runner. "He is able to run any kind of marathon," said Ecuador's Silvio Guerra, who'll be chasing Rop again tomorrow.

Only three other men had won Boston and New York back to back. "It is unusual," acknowledged Rop, who was the first to lead a Kenyan sweep of both races. But when he returned home again, he found no welcoming party.

Had the novelty worn off so soon? Or was victory just assumed from a man who'd produced two firsts and a third (at New York in 2001) in his only three marathons?

"I don't mind," insisted Rop, who said he didn't know he was a marathoner until he became one. "They expect things now, but it is not bad to me."

Except for the financial rewards, which have enabled him to build a new six-room house, Rop said his life hasn't changed much. He and his family took a summer vacation to Mombasa. He is still a Nairobi policeman, wearing his camouflage uniform and carrying a pistol. "Same job," Rop said. "To look for law and order."

And the same daily routine. Rop rises at 5 a.m., runs for 90 minutes, then sits down to a breakfast of eggs, bread, and tea. After resting an hour or so, he's back for another workout. Lunch, another rest, dinner, in bed by 10. "I just want to keep things the same way they were," Rop said.

So far, Rop has resisted the temptation to chase the money around the globe. There were other offers to do a spring marathon, but he was determined to return here to defend his crown.

The only race he's run since New York was the Lisbon half-marathon, so he comes here healthy, rested, and fit. "The way I have prepared," Rop said, "I will run the same way I ran last year."

Whether he'll win or not, Rop won't guarantee. Eight of his rivals have gone under 2:09 in the last two years and history has been tough on defending champions. Since Rodgers (for whom Rop is not named) notched his three-peat in 1980, the only men who've gone back to back here were Geoff Smith (1984-85), Ibrahim Hussein (1991-92), and Ndeti (1993-94-95).

If Rop does repeat, he'll get another $80,000 and probably some more livestock. But his wife doesn't have another newborn in the offing. "Maybe in two years," he said.

If Rop wins here then, maybe he and Lilian could name their next child Hopkinton. Hop Rop has a certain jaunty bounce to it.

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