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Different approaches

Frei, Nietlispach eye the same goal

By Joe Burris, Globe Staff, 4/16/2000

hen the wheelchair racers hit full stride in the early going tomorrow, you can bet Heinz Frei won't be out in front. He doesn't expect to be. In fact, he prefers trailing at the outset.

After winning the Boston Marathon's wheelchair division in 1994 and '96 - setting course and world records in '94 - the Swiss resident proved that it's not where you start, but how you finish. He usually lurks behind the pack, watching the race unfold, then he pounces like a tick at a dog pound, weaving his way to the front, often before the opposition can react.

The approach works best for him. The strategy employed by four-time winner Franz Nietlispach is to get to the front of the pack, gaining as big a lead as possible, then challenging everyone to catch up.

The contrasting strategies have made for the best matchup since the hare and the tortoise - and it is one of the reasons a Swiss has been in the winner's circle since 1994: Each won two races from 1994-97, and Nietlispach has won the last two. (Frei hasn't raced in Boston since 1997, opting for the event in Hamburg.)

Tomorrow's race will be one of the most compelling in years, matching two 42-year-old Swiss competitors who have been as dominant in the wheelchair as the Kenyans have been in the men's able-bodied division.

''We push one another step by step to the top level,'' said Frei, who also won the Berlin Marathon nine consecutive years.

''In every race,'' said Frei, ''we have big fights and high levels that make the difference in the other. But, in the last two or three years, at least others came closer and closer, and it's more open now.''

The toughest competitor for the two will be Mexico's Saul Mendoza, who finished third to Nietlispach in 1998 and second last year. But, make no mistake, the two Swiss are the frontrunners.

In fact, Frei said one of the reasons he is returning is to attempt to protect his course and world records, which he first captured in 1994 at 1:21:23. Nietlispach has been coming closer to that mark, and last year won Boston with a time just 13 seconds away.

But then Frei captured last year's Oita (Japan) Marathon with a 1:20:14. ''That was one of the ideas for me to do this race,'' said Frei, about maintaining his records. ''I am in really good shape this year, and I hope when I have tailwind conditions to break the record.''

After his record performance, Frei was the favorite in 1995, but Nietlispach triumphed with a time of 1:25:59. Frei came in second almost two minutes later. In 1996, however, Frei proved that he is capable of making up a lot of ground to catch and pass a strong leader.

Nietlispach took the lead by as many as 100 meters, but Frei caught him at the 8-mile mark and slowly pulled away. His 1:30:14 beat runner-up Philippe Couprie by almost four minutes.

''The last time Frei beat [Nietlispach], you're talking about maybe being a kilometer behind, when you cannot see the competition,'' said Bob Hall, the division's pioneer and the first men's wheelchair winner. ''That's where the mental games take place.''

In 1997, Nietlispach exacted his revenge in convincing fashion. He took control early and was never challenged. Since then, he has dominated the event; no one has come within three minutes of his finish.

Last year, Mendoza led after the first two splits (miles 1 and 2), and it was all Nietlispach after that. But afterward, he was quoted as saying he knows he is closing in on the record, ''but 13 seconds is a lot of time.''

''In the case of Franz, he has tremendous, tremendous speed,'' said Hall. ''He's a great sprinter. He is truly an endurance person, but he's good enough to hang in there. What he tries to do is sit back and kick and win.

''Heinz tries to burn you. In a race, you've got 10 guys, and Heinz would fall back 10 meters behind the pack, wind it up, catch up, and before the leaders could realize the move was made, they're left behind trying to scramble to catch up.''

Frei said he fares well against Nietlispach elsewhere but that the Boston course favors Nietlispach, whose heavy frame enables him to move downhill fast and whose strength helps him bolster his lead.

''I think [Nietlispach is] a minimum of about 20-25 kilos more than me,'' said Frei, who said he weighs about 129 pounds. I think he is about [198 pounds]. That makes it difficult in the downhill part.''

The course starts downhill for 5 miles and then it's mostly rolling hills to flat until mile 15, when it takes a steep downhill drop. Then there are four hills miles 16-21, the last being Heartbreak Hill which ends at mile 21. After that, it's pretty much downhill.

''It's a challenge to try one more race in Boston, but it's not my favorite course because it's fast downhill and it makes it difficult in terms of security,'' said Frei. ''For Franz, it's especially good for him, but when I am in good shape and I get the conditions I want, no rain and tailwinds, I can have a good race.''

Frei, who became a quadriplegic 22 years ago when he broke his back in a fall in a mountain-run race, said he is not certain how many marathons he will do after this year.

''I mean, I can do a lot of marathons the next few years, but not on this level,'' he said. ''I need to have a good fix this year and after that see what the future is then.''

In other wheelchair news, race officials anticipate the 1,000th finisher. Through the 1999 race, the wheelchair division has recognized 992 finishers.

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