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These amazing finishes are worth a second look

By Michael Madden, Globe Staff, 04/18/00

This was a marathon, mind you, and not a 100-meter dash, a 440, or even a mile. Yet, what stirred the throngs yesterday were three men and three women, each dashing the final 485 yards of the Boston Marathon to the closest finish in the storied event's 104 years.

Moses Tanui, one of those three men, would say that the wind in his face on Boylston Street had surprised him, but he had been drafting behind the two runners in front of him for much of the last mile precisely because of that raw wind from the east and now he was ready.

"I began my push,'' said Tanui of the same push that had propelled him to victory in two of the last four Boston Marathons. "Usually, that position is where I make my move, like in '98. But I had no idea there was that headwind [on Boylston Street]. [Still] I felt good when I began my push. I was trying to time it to win the race.''

And Tanui, a 10,000-meter champion with almost a sprinter's kick, was supremely confident that his push would pull him to victory. "For a short time, I had that push,'' said the Kenyan. "But then the wind slowed me.''

Two Kenyans and one Ethiopian, men who would swap bitter words after the race, words so sharp and biting that African politics as much as athletic finger-pointing seemed to come into play, were running down Boylston Street, a laurel wreath for one of them only a quarter-mile away, heartbreak for the other two.

Gezahenge Abera, the Ethiopian, believed the Kenyans had ganged up on him, saying, "I was running in between two Kenyans, and I had a very hard time dealing with some pushing and kicking.''

Elijah Lagat, meanwhile, knew no more than any of the thousands watching who would win out. "I was not sure who was going to win,'' Lagat said, "because the other runners were so strong.''

And Tanui seemed the strongest of all as he raced down Boylston, opening a few strides on the others. All was going as he planned since Kenmore Square, conserving all the energy he could by drafting behind Lagat and Abera, then unleashing the killer kick and sprinting free on Boylston.

"But in a short time,'' he said, "I began to feel weaker.''

The finish was shocking. The kicker had been outkicked by his fellow-Kenyan, Lagat, who pulled away in the final yards. Even worse for Tanui, the Ethiopian Abera was also able to pass him, and Tanui finished third.

"I was surprised,'' said Tanui, "but then I knew ... the other runners were stronger.'' And, he said, "Everyone makes mistakes; starting my kick too soon was my mistake.''

Just as this shock was playing out in the finishing yards at the Boston Public Library, a greater shock was forming in the women's race, back toward Coolidge Corner. Fatuma Roba had been caught on Heartbreak Hill by Catherine Ndereba - once again, Ethiopia and Kenya battling - and Roba, from time to time, would pull a few strides ahead.

But it was clear by Coolidge Corner that Roba, the Ethiopian seeking an unprecedented fourth straight Boston victory, would not pull away. So the two women, just as the three men had done minutes earlier, raced stride-for-stride through Kenmore Square.

But, in no more than 100 yards, Ndereba ("As you all know, in Kenya we don't experience these winters and all this kind of stuff'') knifed through the cold and was able to open daylight on Roba and Roba's dream was crushed long before the turn onto Boylston.

"I had no problems,'' Roba said through an interpreter. No physical problems. But she, too, noted how far she was from the warmth of Africa by saying, "It was very unfortunate I finished third. The only problems I had was the weather, which we do not experience back in Ethiopia. In Ethiopia, the weather conditions are warm. But, unfortunately, it was windy, and the wind was in front of us. And it was too cold, too.''

Ah, but an even greater shock and a most-amazing finish lay ahead by Irina Bogacheva of Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet republic. "[I knew when] I was planning the race that I could be a factor at the finish,'' said Bogacheva. Gradually she closed on Roba long before Boylston, but no more than 100 yards from the finish, it seemed third would be the best she could do.

However, one last burst of energy brought Bogacheva dead even with Roba one step before the finish line. Some 26 miles and 285 yards, some 2 hours, 26 minutes, and 27 seconds after they took their first stride, the women, incredibly, seemed dead even. As with the men, no three women had ever finished closer in the Marathon's 104 years.

When asked when Bogacheva had passed Roba, Marathon referee Steve Vaitones said, "In the paint [of the finish-line marker].''

Three human timers at ground level and Vaitones, on the stand above the finish line, all had to decide which woman had finished second. The computer timers (which clocked the women identically at 2:26:27) would not be the deciding factor, said the referee, because the computer chip in the runner's shoe might cross the finish line ahead of her torso.

"The decision is based on which torso crosses the line first,'' said Vaitones, who said deciding this is done in the oldest of fashions - by sight. "I came to the decision that [Bogacheva] had finished second. So did the timers on the ground, and there was no consultation among us. We all came to the same decision individually. The decision was unanimous.''

(The actual finish line, Vaitones was forced to explain more than once, "is at the beginning of the mat'' that is atop the painted finish line. And, no, there is no automatic timing camera, Vaitones said, "as there is at track meets.'' This is, after all, a marathon.)

The cold day, though, finally was blistered by the heat of the angry words after the race by Abera and Tanui. "I can't say if the pushing and kicking was intentional but with one [Kenyan] in front of me and one behind, that was a strain on my muscles,'' is how the interpreter relayed his words. "And it resulted in me not finishing first.''

Tanui fired right back when told Abera had accused the Kenyans of kicking him. "[Abera] did it to me also, two or three times,'' he said. "This is not correct that he accuse the Kenyans, because he is the one who kicked several times. Also, when he was in front, he kicked me several times. He was the big problem.''

Ah, but this Marathon wasn't. Its finishes were stirring and memorable.

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