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On the Marathon

It’s one big Cheruiyot race

Kenya isn’t about to run out of talent

BAA president Tom Grilk decorates this year’s champion, Robert Cheruiyot, for his record performance Monday. BAA president Tom Grilk decorates this year’s champion, Robert Cheruiyot, for his record performance Monday. (Pat Greenhouse/ Globe Staff)
By John Powers
Globe Staff / April 21, 2010

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We now have seen Robert “The Elder’’ and Robert “The Younger’’ Cheruiyot crowned with holiday laurel on Boylston Street, yet there is another Robert K. Cheruiyot out and about the countryside. Robert Kiprotich Cheruiyot hasn’t yet lined up in Hopkinton, but he’s a pretty fair marathoner himself, having checked in at 2 hours, 8 minutes, 13 seconds in Amsterdam a few years back.

Cheruiyots grow on trees in the Kenyan highlands. Three dozen of them are accomplished enough that the international track and field federation keeps tabs on them, and most of them run the marathon, including Cheruiyot Cheruiyot, who hasn’t been seen much outside of Nairobi. Then again, nobody had seen much of Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot until he tore up the road in Frankfurt two autumns ago.

He was 20 years old, give or take (Kenyan ages can be a bit whimsical), and had never been outside his homeland or run a marathon when he smashed the course record in 2:07:21. Then he came here last April and placed fifth in 2:10:06, a time that would have won four of the previous six races.

On Monday, Cheruiyot ran the fastest 26 miles ever on a non-pancake layout in an unpaced race, destroying The Elder’s course record by a minute and 22 seconds in 2:05:52.

“In front of us we have one of the greatest talents in marathon history,’’ saluted Gelindo Bordin, the only Olympic gold medalist who has gone on to win here.

Bordin, who took the crown in 1990, was the last man to win before the Kenyan domination began in earnest. Since then, the Husseins, Ndetis, Tanuis, and Cheruiyots have won 17 of 20 titles. None of them, though, beat the clock the way that Cheruiyot did, and he managed it without a screaming tailwind at his back or anyone near him during the final 2 miles.

Just in case there was any confusion, Jack Fleming, the Boston Athletic Association’s longtime communications director, made a point of informing the assembled media that this Cheruiyot was not the same man as the leggy, soft-spoken guy who’d won here four times. There won’t be any confusion back home, either.

“I have a big name in my country now,’’ Cheruiyot observed yesterday morning after the Hancock people officially made him richer by $175,000 (or 14,195,759 shillings). “Almost everybody will want to see me. ‘Who is this Robert Cheruiyot with a Boston record?’ ’’

Cheruiyot’s time is only the fifth-fastest of the year and fourth-fastest by a Kenyan. But those other times were run on Rotterdam’s ironing board. If Newton’s DPW had bulldozed the hills, Cheruiyot might well have had a shot at the global best of 2:03:59 set by Haile Gebrselassie in Berlin two years ago.

But it wasn’t so much the digital clock that the man was interested in, though the course record brought him a $25,000 bonus. It was the victor’s wreath. His payday here will go a long way to filling his Eldoret pasture with livestock.

“Maybe when I return home I’m going to buy some cows,’’ Cheruiyot mused.

But his triumph in the world’s most fabled footrace has set him apart among the dozens of world-class marathoners in Kenya.

Twenty-four of them broke 2:08 in 2009 and a dozen already have done it this year. Vincent Kipruto, one of Cheruiyot’s training partners, submitted a 2:05:13 in Rotterdam and that was only good for third place. The high-altitude camps along the Rift Valley keep churning out platoons of contenders who knock heads in daily workouts.

“Massive numbers of athletes are there to chase the dream,’’ says Tom Ratcliffe, co-founder of KIMbia Athletics. “Everyone is always pushing the limit.’’

While the Americans have made huge strides during the past decade, they’re still only turning out a handful of top guns. Ryan Hall and Meb Keflezighi, the country’s two best, came here primed to end 26 years of foreign ownership. They ran savvy tactical races and yet they were out of contention by the time the leaders hit the hills.

“Ryan and I put it up there,’’ said Keflezighi, who finished fifth. “We ran our heart out.’’

Hall’s fourth-place time (2:08:41) was the fastest ever by a Yank here and Keflezighi’s (2:09:26) was only 11 seconds off the personal best that he set while winning in New York last November. But the Kenyans, who are being chased relentlessly by their Ethiopian neighbors, keep pushing the limit.

Since the beginning of last year, eight of them have broken 2:06 and four (Duncan Kibet Kirong, James Kipsang Kwambai, Patrick Makau Musyoki, Geoffrey Kiprono Mutai) have been under 2:05. Until Monday, Robert The Younger was just another Cheruiyot who’d never won a major marathon. Now, with former Chicago titlist Evans, there are three.

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.