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She's miles ahead of rivals

Should the BAA just get on with it and cut Catherine Ndereba next year's winner's check, too?

No offense to the other fine runners out there, but as long as the 32-year-old from Kenya wakes up feeling reasonably healthy on the day of the race, why should we not assume she will continue to keep winning the Boston Marathon until she just gets bored?

The tiny woman from the world's road racing capital is the first woman to win four Boston Marathons. Since her getting-to-know-you debut in 1998 (a respectable sixth), she has finished first (2000), first (2001), second (2002), first (2004), and first again. That is pure dominance, and it's even more impressive when you consider that the fields get better and better every year. But they don't call her "Catherine the Great" without good reason.

It was NC, as in "no contest" once she passed Ethiopian Elfenesh Alemu between the 20- and 21-mile marks yesterday. She was trailing Alemu by a hefty 1:20 well into the race. Once she caught her, Ndereba (make it a silent "N") ran shoulder-to-shoulder with Alemu for another 10 minutes. But when she downshifted, it was bye-bye. Ndereba won by almost two full minutes (2:25:13 to 2:27:03). She was close to 5 minutes ahead of the third-place finisher, Italy's Bruna Genovese, and more than 6 minutes ahead of 2003 champion Svetlana Zakharova of Russia, who declined to defend her championship last year.

For the third year in a row, the heat made this race a major pain. Classical theory holds that the high-altitude Kenyans might have difficulty in these conditions. But it's pretty clear by now that nothing can deter the amazing Ndereba.

She, of course, has a ready explanation for her success. To say that this lady is a devout Christian is to say that Bill Belichick is a master of preparation. It's pretty tough to pull an answer out of her that doesn't include a reference to the almighty.

On the subject of winning her fourth Boston, for example, she had this to say: "It is more than a thrill, I tell you. Because I can see what my God can do, and how much he has in store for me."

What he had in store as she awoke yesterday was a dramatic come-from-behind triumph. The early leader was Russian Lyubov Morgunova. Romanian Nuta Olaru and Alemu took over at the 5-kilometer mark, and that duel continued until about the 25K mark, when Nuta began to fade. All along, the cry on the course was, "Where's Catherine?"

Well, Catherine was having a little trouble getting started.

"First of all," she said, "my legs were a little heavy. At the halfway mark, I felt better. My body was moving. I felt like, `Wow, I can do it.' "

Once Nuta disappeared, Alemu was running far ahead. But Ndereba had a much smoother stride, and it was evident that she had her Ethiopian rival in her sights. And how could Alemu not be concerned? No one knows better how menacing Ndereba is. Alemu was the runner-up here to Ndereba last year. Even though Alemu would later deny it, she turned her head several times to see what was happening behind her. As if she didn't know.

As they approached the Newton hills, it was, quite obviously, just a matter of time. The only way Ndereba wasn't going to catch her foe was if someone's chocolate Labrador was planning to trip her up.

No such luck for Alemu. Ndereba caught her on the hills and put her away shortly thereafter. From Beacon Street on, it was nothing more than a victory lap.

In contrast to last year, when Ndereba looked spent after outdueling Alemu, she looked as if she were ready to run a half-marathon when this one was over. "My body was responding, and I was just trying to push the pace," she said. "I just felt great."

She'll feel even greater today as she contemplates her place in history. She moves to the top of the class here, vaulting past three-time winners Uta Pippig (1994, '95, '96), Fatuma Roba ('97, '98, `99), and Rosa Mota ('87, '88, '90). And if her time was, in fact, the second-slowest of her four wins, that hardly bothered her. "It depends on how you feel each and every day," she pointed out. "Every day is different than the other."

This day happened to combine heat and wind in an unusual way. "And don't forget that the heat gets trapped when you get to the hills," reminded Bill Squires, the house conscience of the Marathon. Men's fourth-place finisher Alan Culpepper further pointed out that the wind a runner feels after leaving the hills is actually a tease. Simply put: It wasn't a day for record times.

It was a day for an experienced runner to do whatever it took to win. Ndereba dismissed the notion that she had some grand strategy on this occasion. She said she was just reacting to the situation she found herself in. It wasn't as if she was trying to fall so far behind such a quality rival. What mattered was that she possessed the capability to adjust to an adverse circumstance.

Asking her about the future, in any form, plays right into her hands. Take the issue of Paula Radcliffe, who romped home in the London Marathon Sunday. What, she was asked, if Radcliffe decides to come here next year?

"If she comes," she declared, "I know my God is bigger than anybody in this world."

I take that to mean she's counting on win No. 5 in '06. As I said, somebody get busy and cut the check.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is

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