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Lagat wins three-way duel

A new Kenyan champion is crowned after chilling finish

By John Powers, Globe Staff, 4/18/00

This was the year the Boston Marathon ended up a drag race, when three men turned onto Boylston Street with a chance to win - and the least likely of them did.

"I was fighting for second place,'' conceded Elijah Lagat after he'd outkicked Gezahenge Abera and two-time champion Moses Tanui to win the 104th BAA holiday jog, an $80,000 check, and a spot on the Kenyan team for this summer's Olympics in Sydney. "It was a surprise for me to win.''

It was the closest finish in race history (both Lagat and Abera were timed in 2:09:47), the narrowest gap ever (three seconds) among the top three, and arguably the best tactical race in BAA annals.

It was a stirring triumph for the 33-year-old Lagat, who'd won Berlin in 1997 and Prague in 1998 but had never raced here. Lagat hadn't even been a runner until seven years ago, after a doctor told him that if he didn't drop 30 pounds, he'd die of heart failure.

"So I began jogging,'' Lagat said.

The defeat was a shocking blow for Tanui, Lagat's countryman and training partner, who kicked too soon and squandered his chance to become the first three-time victor since Cosmas Ndeti (1993-95).

"Everybody has to make a mistake,'' shrugged the 34-year-old Tanui, who had won in 1996 and 1998 and thought he had the threepeat locked up 300 meters from the line. "That was a mistake. I wanted to win for the third time. Unfortunately, I lost. I do not know what happened.''

Not that anyone back home will complain. The Kenyans, as usual, had a fantastic day, not only winning the men's title for a record 10th straight time but grabbing five of the first six places and seven of the top nine. And they did it running into a 20-mile-an-hour headwind on a 40-degree day that thinned the crowd all along the 26-mile route and forced the leaders to run pack-style as much for protection as for tactics.

As soon as they took the line in Hopkinton, the contenders knew that a fast time was out of the question (Lagat's clocking ranked 37th in race history). So they huddled together, two dozen of them, and happily let Japan's Makoto Sasaki motor down the road by himself for the first half-dozen miles.

Sasaki, who led the field by 27 seconds after 4 miles, kept looking at his watch when he should have been consulting an anemometer. By Framingham, he had been blown back into the pack and out the other end (he struggled in 95th).

Thus was boldness punished all afternoon. Anybody who ventured forward as the race grinded on through Natick and Wellesley and into Newton (like South Africa's Simon Mpholo and Kenya's Jackson Kabiga) ended up swirled away like Dorothy Gale soaring off to Oz.

This was a day when numbers meant safety. There were still nearly 20 men in a loose scrum when they turned onto Commonwealth Ave. at the firehouse and headed up into the Newton hills.

When they climbed Heartbreak, the last of them, there were still eight running stride for stride - Tanui, Lagat, Abera, defending champ Joseph Chebet, Ondoro Osoro, Laban Nkete, David Busienei, and John Kagwe.

When they came down past Boston College and onto the flats, there also were eight. When they passed the graveyard that marks what John (The Elder) Kelley calls "the haunted mile,'' there were still eight.

That was too many for Tanui, who knew the course well enough from there to require no traveling party. For 20 miles, he had tucked himself so neatly into the pack that even press-truck observers with binoculars couldn't locate him.

Had Tanui dropped out? Followed the fake "shortcut'' turn that some puckish Natick homeowner had advertised with a huge banner? No chance. He'd merely taken protective cover, waiting for an apt time and place to make a move.

Tanui chose Cleveland Circle, 4 miles from the end, to step into high gear and see how many rivals he could shake.

"I wanted to test them,'' he said.

All of them fell off but Lagat and Abera, the 22-year-old from Addis Ababa who'd beaten France's Mohamed Ouaadi by one second at Fukuoka last December in a blistering 2:07:54.

No Ethiopian but Abebe Mekonnen (1989) had ever won in Boston, and the Kenyans weren't going to make it easy for Abera. They'd crowded him and cut him off all day.

"At 25 kilometers, I was going to pull out,'' the Ethiopian said. "Unfortunately, I couldn't make it.''

Now, Abera claimed, Tanui and Lagat were jostling and tripping him.

"I was in between them and it was very difficult,'' he said. "They were pushing me and kicking me. I can't say if it was intentional or not.''

Nothing personal, the Kenyans claimed. Just world-class, close-quarters road racing.

"During a race, anything can happen,'' Lagat mused.

If Abera wanted the passing lane, the Kenyans would have yielded, they said.

"I told him I could step aside, but he never went ahead,'' said Lagat, who referred to the Ethiopian as "my colleague.'' "He wanted to follow me.''

So did Tanui, who preferred being the invisible man until he could whoosh past his companions like a Phantom jet down the stretch. That's how he overtook Chebet (eighth yesterday) in the final 200 meters two years ago. That was his plan again.

So they strode, the three of them, along Beacon Street, into Kenmore Square and back onto Commonwealth. Lagat, with Abera on his heels and Tanui shadowing Abera. They turned that way onto Hereford Street and then onto Boylston for the home stretch.

There had been memorable two-man dashes before: Wayland's Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley in 1982, Ibrahim Hussein and Juma Ikangaa in 1988, Tanui and Chebet two years ago. But never three for the money.

Suddenly, Tanui cut from left to right, switched on the afterburners and grabbed the lead. It's over, Lagat told himself.

"After I saw Moses leaving, I didn't think of being first,'' he said. "I was trying to beat my colleague for second place.''

But once Lagat passed Abera, he realized that he still had time and space for a final burst. Tanui, alone in the middle of the road, was struggling with the wind he'd eluded for 26 miles and was spinning his wheels.

"I realized Moses was not also moving fast, so I started to sprint,'' Lagat said. "I found I was moving closer and closer to him. So I sprinted to the maximum.''

Lagat blew Tanui away, held off Abera by a couple of strides and found himself with the laurel wreath and an invitation to Olympus alongside Tanui.

"I thought I was coming for a third time,'' Tanui shrugged. "But the best man wins.''

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