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Just what the strong Kenyan contingent needed - some added incentive

By Bill Griffith, Globe Staff, 4/14/2000

enyan runners have won nine straight Boston Marathons, part of a stretch in which foreign runners have triumphed for 16 straight years.

Joseph Chebet Joseph Chebet, 1999 Boston Marathon winner. (Globe Staff Photo / Frank O'Brien)    

Although it's no reach to pick a Kenyan to win the 104th race, what is tough is to single out which one, considering the race is serving as Kenya's Olympic trials.

The natural choice is defending champion Joseph Chebet. And he could repeat. The dual goals of a second straight Boston win, coupled with a ticket to Sydney in September for the Olympics, is motivation enough.

Of course, there's also plenty of motivation for 34-year-old Moses Tanui, who'd love a third Boston laurel wreath and one more chance for an Olympic hurrah.

But does the recent development at the World Cross-Country championships, where five-time champion Paul Tergat and the Kenyans spent a sleepless prerace night arguing among themselves, signal dissension in the ranks? The Kenyan explanation was that the problem concerned race organizers reneging on allowing a nonscoring independent Kenyan runner to compete. When a runner had to be deleted from the lineup, the team managers arbitrarily made the selection, triggering a near-boycott.

The team ran, but none of the Kenyans took out the pace, even though six of them were in the lead group. As a result, a large pack remained near the front until the race's late stages. Tergat appeared to be pushing in the final stretches and wound up hanging on for third, as Morocco-born Belgian Mohammed Mourhit and Ethiopian Assefa Mezgebu finished 1-2.

The Kenyan group at Boston likely will be solidly back on the same page come Monday. And that should spell trouble for the rest of the field.

The folks at John Hancock are committed to bringing the world's best to Boston.

For now and the foreseeable future, that means the Kenyans.

This space won't be picking against them.

Joseph Chebet, Kenya, 2-1
PR: 2:07:37 (Boston, 1998) Age: 29

There's no question that wearing the title of Boston Marathon winner changes a runner's self-image forever. Before winning Boston last year, Chebet, who previously had wins in Amsterdam (1996, 2:10:57) and Turin (1997, 2:08:23), was riding a string of three heartbreaking second-place finishes. In 1997 and 1998, he was second in New York to countryman John Kagwe, and in his Boston debut in 1998, his personal-best 2:07:37 was three seconds behind Moses Tanui's winning time. That second-place time remains the fourth-fastest time ever on the Hopkinton-to-Boston route. Chebet calls his Boston win the high point of his career. But a repeat would be even bigger, and a strong Boston performance would mean a spot on the Kenyan Olympic team. Chebet has joined Bill Rodgers (1978, 1979) and Alberto Salazar (1982) in becoming the third marathoner to win the Boston and New York marathons in the same year. Track & Field News ranked him No. 1 in the world for 1999, ahead of Khalid Khannouchi, who set the world record at Chicago, and Abel Anton, who won the World Championships Marathon in Seville, Spain.

Moses Tanui, Kenya, 5-2
PR: 2:06:16 (Chicago, 1999) Age: 34

Tanui comes to Boston with a chip on his shoulder. He set his personal best in Chicago last fall, beaten only by Khalid Khannouchi, who followed his pacesetters and ran a world-best 2:05:42. Tanui's time was the Kenyan national record, but that was small consolation. He is a two-time Boston champion (1996 and 1998) and, if that sequence holds true, is due to win No. 3 this year. He posted the third-fastest time in race history (2:07:34) when he defeated Joseph Chebet by three seconds in 1998. Last year, he dropped out just prior to Cleveland Circle (22.5 miles), citing stomach cramps. At the time he was eighth, trailing the leaders by 2:41. In 1996, it was Tanui who ended Cosmas Ndeti's three-year Boston winning streak. He has a 10,000-meter gold medal from the 1991 World Championships and twice (1990, 1991) was silver medalist in the World Cross-Country Championships. What he's done lately: In March he was fourth at the Sendai Half Marathon in Japan (1:03:23).

Ondoro Osoro, Kenya, 7-2
PR: 2:06:54 (Chicago, 1998) Age: 32

Osoro was a top cross-country runner until a 1995 auto accident threatened his career. After his recovery, he found success at longer distances. He made the fastest debut marathon in history with his 2:06:54 win in Chicago two years ago. He came to Boston last year, but an injury forced him to scratch. He returned to Chicago last fall to run his second marathon, placing third in 2:08 behind Khalid Khannouchi's world-best 2:05:42 and runnerup Moses Tanui's 2:06:16. Chicago is flat. Boston is hilly. Is Osoro ready for the Boston course? What he's done lately: Won the Kyoto City Half-Marathon in 1:01:50.

Silvio Guerra, Ecuador, 5-1
PR: 2:09:49 (Chicago, 1997) Age: 31

Guerra was in the Boston lead pack for 16 miles last year. Instead of fading, he took the initiative and led for the next 6 miles. Though eventual champion Joseph Chebet covered his move and pulled away in Brookline, Guerra held on for the runner-up position (2:10:19). He recorded his personal best in Chicago in 1997 (2:09:49, eighth place) - a national record. He's familiar with Boston's hills and has trained in hilly Boulder, Colo., as well as Ecuador for a run at the laurel wreath this year.

Jackson Kabiga, Kenya, 5-1
PR: 2:08:42 (Fukuoka, 1998) Age: 23

Kabiga has a couple of major reasons for coming to Boston for the first time after establishing himself with four years of outstanding performances around the world: 1. Three-time Boston winner Cosmas Ndeti was his idol. 2. His goal is to make a strong showing and earn a spot on the Kenyan Olympic team. Consider him highly motivated and eager to establish his place among the Kenyans. He ran a personal best of 2:08:42 in winning the 1998 Fukuoka Marathon. Earlier in 1998, he posted his first marathon victory at Paris in 2:09:43. He won the Nagano (Japan) Olympic Commemorative Marathon last April (2:13:26), and he concluded his year by finishing 15th at New York in November.

John Kagwe, Kenya, 10-1
PR: 2:08:12 (New York, 1997) Age: 31

Kagwe is a seasoned marathoner who knows how to win, numbering two New Yorks, a Pittsburgh, and a Prague among his victories. He outsprinted countryman Joseph Chebet by three seconds to win New York in 1998 (2:08:45). The previous year, he beat runner-up Chebet by 1:15. However, a Boston laurel wreath has been elusive, as he's never quite mastered the Hopkinton-to-Boston course. This will be his fourth run over the course. He was fifth the past two years (2:13:58 last year and 2:08:51 in 1998) and 16th in his marathon debut in 1994 (2:11:52). What he's done lately: Was second last month in the Newark Distance Classic 20K (12.4 miles) in 1:00:46.

Philip Tarus, Kenya, 6-1
PR: 2:08:33 (San Diego, 1999) Age 25

Tarus is the darkhorse of the field, with the talent to win it all. His calling card is his half-marathon speed. However, he has expanded his distance to the marathon, winning the first two San Diego Rock 'n' Roll Marathons in 2:10:22 and 2:08:33. Also last year, Tarus set the course record at Puerto Rico's testing San Blas Half-Marathon with a 1:02:11. Is he coming to Boston to push the pace for the Kenyans as a tuneup for San Diego in June? If he's still with the leaders at Heartbreak Hill, you know he's running for real.

Julius Ruto, Kenya, 10-1
PR: 2:08:10 (Paris, 1999) Age: 28

Ruto broke into the 2:08 club with his 2:08:10 in winning the 1999 Paris Marathon, earning him a No. 8 world ranking from Track & Field News. His prior best had been a 2:10:46 win in 1998 at Spain's San Sebastian Marathon. He also has a 2:12:22 good for 12th place in the 1999 Fukuoka Marathon. This is his first try at Boston, and he's capable of helping the Kenyan group dictate the pace.

Elijah Lagat, Kenya, 10-1
PR: 2:07:41 (Berlin, 1997) Age: 33

He's fast, as his PR shows, but he's also strong, as he proved with a recent sixth at a hot and dusty San Blas Half-Marathon. He knows how to win, as he did in 1997 at Berlin and 1998 at Prague. He also has a 1:00:24 half-marathon to his credit. He may not have enough to win here, but he may have enough to make sure another Kenyan does by sharing the work in a lead pack.

Makhosonke Fika, South Africa, 10-1
PR: 2:10:39 (Paris, 1999) Age: 28

He joined coach Alec Riddle's training camp over the winter and comes here as part of a South African group that has focused on Boston. Fika was on a 2:08 pace at Paris last year before cramps slowed him at 35 kilometers (21.5 miles). On past performances, you wouldn't consider the South Africans capable of staying with the Kenyans; however, the team training concept has been known to lead to individual breakthroughs when the group goes racing. He also has done high-quality pace setting in Japanese races in the past three months, indicating he is both in great shape and on pace for Boston.

Abner Chipu, South Africa, 10-1
PR: 2:12:45 (Boston, 1999) Age: 28

He was fourth at Boston last year in his best effort. He has a 1:01:15 best for the half-marathon and, along with teammate Fika, has the speed to run with the Kenyans. Also like Fika, he did recent pace-setting work in Japan to perfection, which is a great way to get ready to run one's own big race. The question is, can teammates Laban Nkete (2:14:15 best) and 24-year-old marathon newcomer Simon Mpholo keep the pace to help counter the Kenyan team tactics?

Alejandro Cruz, Mexico, 14-1
PR: 2:08:57 (Chicago, 1988) Age: 32

His odometer shows high mileage, but he's also a wise veteran who knows his way over the Boston course. In 1992, he was Runner's World Road Racer of the Year. He's been fourth at Boston (2:12:11, 1991) and second at Rotterdam (1989) - his 2:08:57 stunned the world when he posted it 11 years ago. He still shows consistent half-marathon speed and could get to the line for a nice pay day if it's his day. A good result also could put him in line for the final spot on the Mexican Olympic team.

Hu Gangjun, China, 15-1
PR: 2:09:18 (Beijing, 1997) Age: 29

His PR is also his country's. Hu has won some big races (three times at Beijing), but he also dropped out of sight for a while. He was injured in 1998 and is making a comeback that he hopes will lead to Sydney with the Chinese Olympic Marathon team. He trains in Inner Mongolia and rarely races outside his country.

Gezahenge Abera, Ethiopia, 20-1
PR: 2:07:54 (Fukuoka, 1999) Age 22

You could do worse than parlaying women's favorite Fatuma Roba with this young man. They're both trained by renowned coach Dr. Yilma Berta. Abera is a marathoning newcomer and his Fukuoka time bettered his personal best by six minutes. He also had to outduel France's Mohamed Ouaadi over the last 2 kilometers, finally settling the issue by making his move with 400 meters to go.

Abraham Assefa, Ethiopia, 25-1
PR: Marathon debut Age: 27

He has been an Olympian at 10,000 meters, and has a 1:00:53 half-marathon good for seventh at the World Championships in 1997. He's also been a consistent top-10 finisher over the roads.

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