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A fourth straight victory would put Fatuma Roba in a class by herself

By Barbara Huebner, Globe Staff, 4/16/2000

n the Boston Marathon's first 103 year, only four have had the chance - and all fell short. It takes speed, strength, talent, toughness, nerve, and oh yes, more than a little luck: no toe stubbed the week before, no hamstring pulled getting off the bus, no waking up with the flu.

Four straight wins. Four consecutive laurel wreaths. Four for the ages.

That's what Fatuma Roba will be chasing as she toes the line in Hopkinton at noon tomorrow. If she's successful, the 1996 Olympic gold medalist will find she has taken a giant stride toward being regarded as one of the greatest female marathoners of all-time.

Although some observers believe she will need to repeat as Olympic champion before eclipsing the legends who came before, at least one does not.

''It would put her on the top,'' said Joan Benoit Samuelson, considered by many to be the one who now holds that honored spot. ''It has to.''

But before she can ascend, Roba has to conquer 26.2 more miles, a cadre of talented challengers eager to deny her the throne, and the little matter of precedent. Of which there is none.

''It's one thing to [win] four,'' said Bill Rodgers, who did.

''It's another to get four in a row,'' said Bill Rodgers, who didn't.

In 1981, going after the magic No. 4, he finished third behind Toshihiko Seko and Craig Virgin.

''You need to have that focus, and I think she's in a good position for that because she's still pretty young,'' said Rodgers, who believes many top runners find their desire to win is depleted after they reach a point in their careers. ''It's hard because of all the variables, and where the competition is tougher than ever these days. But she's particularly good on this course, a hilly course. It really seems to suit her. She found success here and she loves it and I know the feeling. I salute her.''

In addition to Rodgers (1978-'80), the others who have won three straight Bostons are Clarence DeMar ('22-'24), Cosmas Ndeti ('93-'95), and Uta Pippig ('94-'96), although both Roberta Gibb ('66-'68) and Sara Mae Berman ('69-'71) did so before women were allowed to run officially.

In the wheelchair division, Jean Driscoll won seven straight ('90-'96) and her rival, Louise Sauvage, has won the last three.

In their quests for No. 4, DeMar was passed by Charles Mellor on Beacon Street and finished second; Ndeti went out too fast and faded to third; and Pippig, not yet recovered from injuries sustained in Atlanta, could manage only fourth.

Roba, the 26-year-old Ethiopian who stunned the world by winning a gold medal at the 1996 Olympics as a virtual unknown, insists she is neither nervous nor thinking about her role in history.

''If I win four times, I am really happy,'' she said in her improving English. If that makes her the best ever, she implies, that's for others to decide. ''Me, I only run.''

Roba's agent, Mark Wetmore, has been through this before: He also represents Ndeti, who won his trio by starting out cautiously and then coming from behind. He switched strategies and ran from the front in 1996 - and finished third behind fellow Kenyans Moses Tanui and Ezekial Bitok.

''He was in shape to go for the world record and didn't think of the consequences of running into a headwind,'' said Wetmore. ''He was so in love with the Boston Marathon that [setting a record] was what he thought he had to do. Anything short of that would have been failure for him.''

Roba, he said, ''coming in, is more low-key, settled.''

The three-time defending champion seems more at ease than she has in her last three Aprils. ''Either she's a great actor or she's really relaxed and confident,'' said Kathrine Switzer Friday as Roba, in stylish black boots and trousers accented by silver rivets, breezed by in the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel.

Few had heard of Roba before she became the surprise gold medalist in Atlanta, beating defending champion Valentina Yegorova by a full two minutes. The next April, she was invited to Boston for the first time and didn't disappoint, becoming the first black African woman to win when she crossed the line in 2 hours 26 minutes 23 seconds. Ironically, her victory denied Pippig her chance at four straight.

''For Fatuma, obviously it's hard but maybe I think it's possible,'' said Pippig. ''Mentally, I don't know if she's thinking about it. Maybe we are all thinking for her.''

In 1998, Roba set her personal best with a 2:23:21 victory despite a painful tendon behind her right knee. In becoming the third-fastest woman ever to run this course, she came in almost four minutes ahead of the runnerup. Last year, Roba finally shook Catherine Ndereba of Kenya in the Newton hills to win in 2:23:25.

''She runs wonderfully,'' said Ndereba, back to try again.

Not that Roba's triumphs have been uninterrupted since Atlanta. In the 1997 World Championships, she dropped out halfway through the race with a calf injury. At the same event in 1999, she led much of the way only to finish fourth. She also has had limited success on flat courses, although she finished an impressive second (2:27:05) in November at the Tokyo International Marathon.

The verdict may come in Sydney, where Roba is expected to face a formidable field, likely to include world-record holder Tegla Loroupe of Kenya (2:20:43), Naoko Takahashi of Japan (2:21:47) and Lidia Simon of Romania (2:22:54). ''If she can cap another gold, wow,'' said Rodgers. ''The Olympics, everybody is there. It's a heavy burden.''

But burdens are made to be borne, just as barriers exist to be broken. That, her competitors appreciate.

Kenyan Lornah Kiplagat, who is making her Boston debut, explained: ''We are so proud of her. She is the only woman from Africa to win a gold medal and the Boston Marathon three times. She shows we can do it. She's been a great inspiration for us. If she wins it four times, it gives [all of us] the potential to do it six times, and many more.''

Although Roba concedes that her quest is a difficult one, she said she has seen nothing to alter her plans for laurel wreath No. 4 and a place of honor in the roll call of Boston.

''I don't see any new faces,'' she said.

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