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He has mastered hurdles to race

No easy defense for champ Kuznetsov

By Susan Bickelhaupt, Globe Staff, 4/14/2000

welve years ago, Andrey Kuznetsov was primed to represent the Soviet Union in the 10,000-meter race in the Seoul Olympics. But he contracted hepatitis and had to shelve those plans.

By the time the next Olympics came around, Kuznetsov had only barely regained training form, and had to pass up the Games again.

He wasn't chosen to go to the '98 Games in Atlanta, so he came to Boston that April to run - but only after a snafu with his visa resulted in Kuznetsov arriving just two days before the Marathon and having to sleep one night in a chair in a hotel lobby.

The next two years he had a string of victories that came to a halt last November when he pulled out of the Ocean State Marathon in Rhosde Island with leg cramps.

So it might seem like there has been a black cloud over the Russian as he's tried to make his mark on the running circuit.

Not really.

Kuznetsov, 42, won the masters division in that Boston race in 1998; he successfully defended the title the next year, and is now back to try to make it three in a row. In the meantime, he has notched wins in the Houston, Grandma's, and Twin Cities marathons and placed first in his division in Falmouth and other shorter races.

''He's been the world's best master runner for the past two years,'' said Don Paul, Kuznetsov's agent. ''His run in Boston was the second strongest ever by a master, and I think he's the strongest after John Campbell.''

Campbell, an Olympian from New Zealand also represented by Paul, set the world masters record at the 1990 Boston Marathon with a time of 2:11:04.

In 1998, Kuznetsov placed 15th overall at Boston, winning the masters division in 2:15:27. He shaved a minute off that time the next year, winning his division again and finishing seventh overall.

He sounds resigned that making the Olympics is a goal that has passed him by. ''You need a time of 2:09, and that's too fast for me,'' he said from Rockville, Md., where he is living while training. ''So I'm not concentrating on the Olympics this year.''

Instead, he said, he'll focus on Boston, where the first-place prize is $10,000, and enter some shorter-distance races over the summer.

When Kuznetsov was growing up in Khabarovsk, in eastern Russia, he focused on cross-country skiing. ''I like things that are outside, and there's a big forest near where I live,'' he said.

He ran just in the summer, as training for skiing, until a coach told him to lose the skis and concentrate on running.

Kuznetsov did so and made the Olympic squad destined for Seoul to compete in the 10,000-meter race, in which he had run 28:13. But in April he got sick, and when the diagnosis was hepatitis, Kuznetsov was told to say home and was kept in isolation for almost three months.

''I didn't run for one year, and was slow to come back,'' he said. ''They were testing my blood every month.''

He didn't start training again for two years, which was too late for him to prepare for the Olympics in Barcelona. Eventually he was not just back to running but was running longer distances, including a half-marathon. In 1994, he ran his first marathon, near Kiev, and finished in 2:15.

By early 1996, he had lowered his personal best to 2:12:31 - second best in the country - and was Russia's national champion at 20 kilometers.

But the Russian federation opted to send two others to the Olympics, both of whom finished way back in the standings in their races.

Living so far from Moscow didn't help his cause, Kuznetsov said, but he refused to blame politics for the federation's decision not to send him. He lived 4,000 miles away from Moscow, where marathoner Oleg Struzhakov resided and where the team decisions were made.

''I don't hold bad feelings, but I always dreamed of running in the Olympics,'' Kuznetsov said.

Kuznetsov, who now has a working visa to be in the US, and whose wife and two daughters live with him in Maryland, has won the masters divisions in eight of the nine marathons he has entered in the past two years, suffering his first loss at the Twin Cities race last fall. He finished 5 seconds behind Kenyan Joshua Kipkemboi, who wasn't wearing the correct masters bib.

In October, Kuznetsov dropped out of the Ocean State Marathon with leg spasms, and said he got back to hard training for the Marathon only last month.

So Kuznetsov knows he'll face a tough race on Monday. In addition to Kipkemboi, the competition in the masters division will include Budd Coates and Bob Schwelm, both of Pennsylvania, and Steve Wilson of Flordia, who won last month's masters division in the Motorola Marathon in Austin, Texas.

''I like Boston,'' Kuznetsov. ''It's a good course, as long as it's not hot.

''I'll just see how my muscles go. Inside I feel young, but my muscles feel older.''

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