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For Joseph Chebet, title defense would come a spot on Olympic team

By Michael Holley, Globe Staff, 4/16/2000

he thin man sits at a conference table and begins to speak. He smiles a lot.

He answers your questions fully and completely, but also quickly. He doesn't waste time. You would guess - correctly - that he is a runner if you didn't know that already.

He is not just a runner. He is 29-year-old Joseph Chebet, the runner who won marathons last year in Boston and New York. He became the third person in history to accomplish that. He also won (and set course records) in the first two marathons he ever ran, Amsterdam in 1996 and Turin in '97. Tomorrow, he will try to become the 10th consecutive male from Kenya to win Boston.

So, yes, Chebet does marathons well. But he doesn't do them naturally nor effortlessly. In fact, these 26.2-mile jogs are a pain in his back side. They are a pain in his neck, arms, and legs, too.

"After a marathon, I can go to bed but I can't go to sleep," he says. "There is no sleep for five or six hours. All muscles are sore. It lasts for days. Sometimes two days; sometimes three."

Chebet vividly describes the pain of running. He is so descriptive you expect him to rise from the table and declare he is withdrawing from tomorrow's race.

''Me?'' he says, the smile returning. ''I wish to win. The course is one that I should know.''

If Chebet repeats in Boston, he will be able to book a September flight to Sydney. Boston is an Olympic qualifier for the Kenyans, so the win is worth more than the $80,000 payout for first place. The top two finishers will represent the East African country in Australia. Chebet, whom some consider No. 1 in the world, has run twice in Boston and has a first and second.

But even if this weren't an Olympic year, winning would transcend cash. It's usually like that for Kenyan runners.

''It's not like Europe or the United States,'' says Federico Rosa, a friend of Chebet's. ''In Kenya, people don't press you if you are famous. You can live a normal life.''

Chebet has noticed that more people have acknowledged him since his Boston victory.

''Some come up to me and say, `Hi. All the best to you,''' he says. ''Then they shake my hand. That's it.''

Intrusive neighbors? Not a problem.

''All the people who live close to him are his friends,'' Rosa says.

Chebet describes his home - in Elmarakwet - as rural. After he won New York and Boston, he went home and ''relaxed for a month.'' Then he began training to defend his title. Although many believe athletes in Kenya's Great Rift Valley have some type of advantage, Chebet shrugs off the mystery.

''I think some are successful because they train very well,'' he says. He adds that the reverence for the Kenyans ''can also be an advantage.''

He does not, however, go into detail about his training schedule. ''It's always different,'' he explains. ''Sometimes it's five days; sometimes it's three days.''

You listen to him. It is obvious he is a runner. He always has been. He says he began running as a small child. He knew he was good at it then, and he could always observe a good runner: his father. But as much running as Chebet did, he didn't begin to take it seriously until he was in his early 20s. Maybe his neighbors knew his skill and perhaps other Kenyans knew, as well. But if he was going to make a career out of running, he knew he would have to leave the country.

As the statistics from Boston show, there are many talented runners in East Africa. The money to support them, though, is not there. You can be a great marathoner in Kenya, but you will be in the nonprofit, for-the-love-of-the-sport category if you don't pursue races in Europe and the US.

Now that he is taking his work seriously, Chebet is a favorite to win Boston. So is his friend, countryman, and two-time winner Moses Tanui. The numbers seem to indicate someone from Africa will win; the last non-African champion was Italy's Gelindo Bordin in 1990.

In a lot of ways, Chebet knows what to expect. He knows commentators will refer to the layout as a downhill course although ''it's not all downhill. It goes like this ... '' He positions his hand as if outlining an imaginary camel. ''I'm glad it's not a flat course.''

He also knows that during such a long race, one's mind can drift. Even if you are a defending champion. Fans tend to think a champion's mind is obsessively focused on winning and the finish line. Not so, says Chebet. Sometimes he thinks of his family. Sometimes there are thoughts of the course and conditions. Sometimes, he says with a smile, there are thoughts of women. There are times when he thinks of the response he gets when he walks the streets of London and Boston.

''People will say, `Are you from Kenya?''' he says. ''I will say yes. And they say, `Ohhh.'''

That's respect.

The thin man begins to speak even faster. His friend, Rosa, checks his watch. What, somewhere to go?

''Dinner is over in 20 minutes,'' Rosa explains.

The men want to make sure they have enough time to get to the cafeteria in the John Hancock Conference Center. Maybe they are being humble. They should know they have time to spare. Remember, the thin man is a runner. Not an effortless one. Not a natural one. Simply a very good one. Twenty minutes of travel time for a guy like this? That's probably 18 minutes more than necessary.

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