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Jeptoo finds her way with finishing kick

With runner-up Jelena Prokopcuka in the distance down the home stretch, Kenya’s Rita Jeptoo coasted to a 10-second win in her Boston debut.
With runner-up Jelena Prokopcuka in the distance down the home stretch, Kenya’s Rita Jeptoo coasted to a 10-second win in her Boston debut. (Globe Staff Photo / Michele McDonald)

The passport, graced with the face of the soon-to-be Boston Marathon winner, lay somewhere in the embassy in Milan. Under a stack of papers, perhaps. Or on someone's desk. No one knew exactly where it was. Least of all its owner, Rita Jeptoo.

She had already received her visa, and thought she was on her way to Boston, until she got the news that her passport had vanished. She was told that it might be lost in the mail. At that point, the 25-year-old Kenyan, who spends much of her time training in Italy, started to think that Boston might not be in her future, at least not this year.

Then on Friday, as a press conference she should have been attending went off at the Fairmont Copley Plaza, Jeptoo learned that her passport had been found in the embassy. She would get to run Boston, after all.

She arrived Saturday at 6 p.m., preventing her from a preview of the course she was to run.

And run well.

Three women -- Jeptoo and favorites Jelena Prokopcuka and Reiko Tosa -- had separated themselves by the time they met the bottom of the Newton hills in yesterday's race. And, once the trio hit the 38-kilometer mark (less than 3 miles to go), Jeptoo pulled away, finishing in 2 hours 23 minutes and 38 seconds, the eighth-fastest time for a woman in Boston history, and leaving Prokopcuka (2:23:48) and a struggling Tosa (2:24:11) to pull in for second and third.

''This," Jeptoo said, ''is happiness for me to win Boston."

After weathering the hills, the ones that almost took out Tosa, the three-pack headed toward Boston still tightly linked. But Jeptoo's body felt good. Her energy bubbled. And, after testing Prokopcuka with a series of short surges, Jeptoo made her move.

''I'm not feeling to go very fast, because I think [Prokopcuka] is faster than me," Jeptoo said. ''But when I'm 38 kilometers, I'm feeling to go. I'm feeling to move, so I cannot wait."

She didn't. She flew through Coolidge Corner, building up a lead of eight seconds at the 40-kilometer mark (24.86 miles), and leaving Tosa far behind. But it never seemed completely safe, not with Prokopcuka, known as a good closer, holding steady just 20 yards behind.

''The last 2 miles, I thought I could do it," Prokopcuka said. ''But I didn't do it. It wasn't possible."

While the group of eight that had run together through the first half of the Marathon began to break up as it hit 25 kilometers (15.53 miles), a smaller pack of four still looked strong. Tosa hadn't yet started to hurt, and Italian Bruna Genovese, the third-place finisher in 2005, stayed with the leaders. Genovese, who finished fourth (2:25:28), couldn't contend with Heartbreak Hill, and so she, too, dropped back as the women began to attack Commonwealth Avenue.

Tosa, the slim leader for much of the early going, fell away from the lead pack as the group negotiated the stretch of Newton between the Johnny Kelley statue at City Hall and the approach to Chestnut Hill.

''It was because the course was tough," she said. ''Nothing about the strategy."

She recovered, though, and rejoined the leaders as they hit Boston College, and stayed with them until Jeptoo made her winning move.

While Prokopcuka or Tosa would have been expected to win, Jeptoo, who had never raced in the United States, was a bit of a surprise victor, if only because of her age (25) and her lack of big-name marathon experience.

In 2004, she won two marathons, Stockholm and Milan, with times nearly five minutes slower than yesterday's. It was a seventh-place finish, in a personal-best 2:24:22, at the World Championships last August that brought her more in line with what was needed here.

Just a few days removed from the disappointment of believing she would not be going to Boston, Jeptoo fell to her knees after crossing the finish line. Less than 48 hours earlier, she had landed in Boston, alone and nervous, with 26.2 miles of long straightaways and undulating hills before her.

''At the last minute I come here, and I feel very happy to come here and to post my fastest," Jeptoo said, in a rambling answer that highlighted both her passport confusion and her utter joy at winning. ''This is my fastest marathon . . . so I am happy, so much, and I won and this is my best time. I don't know. I don't have anything I can tell because I'm happy so much."

There wasn't much she needed to tell. Her face, all smiles and relief, said it for her.

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