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Ndereba cools off Roba to claim first women's title for a Kenyan

By Barbara Huebner, Globe Staff, 4/18/00

The hills of Newton had been sacred ground to Fatuma Roba, the stretch along which she had sealed her victories. So when the three-time defending champion of the Boston Marathon took the lead yesterday just before the firehouse turn onto Commonwealth Avenue, the engravers went to work etching the 26-year-old Ethiopian's name into the record books as the first runner to win four consecutive Boston Marathons.

But whether from the weight of history or the chill of an unwelcome cold wind, this time Roba faltered. In the middle of Heartbreak Hill came Catherine Ndereba, the Kenyan road racing sensation who would come from 52 seconds behind and seventh place at the halfway point to crush Roba's dream while fulfilling one of her own, finishing in 2 hours 26 minutes 11 seconds for the first marathon victory of her career.

Ndereba wept as she also became the first Kenyan woman to wear Boston's laurel wreath.

"It was not something I was expecting,'' she said. "That's why all those tears were coming out of my eyes, because I was very happy and overwhelmed. I feel good, and I think each and every one in my country is feeling the same thing.''

Roba was further stunned when Irina Bogacheva, a 38-year-old journeywoman from Kyrgyzstan, thrillingly nipped her at the tape for second place. It was a costly lean that bumped Roba to the third-place money of $22,500, while Bogacheva upped her take to $40,000. For the victory, Ndereba will take home $80,000. Her 16-second margin of victory was the closest in Boston history for the women's competition.

At 27, Ndereba is perhaps the foremost road racer in the world. Ranked No. 1 by Runner's World for three of the last four years, she was absent from the list in 1997 when she gave birth to her daughter, Jane. Within 14 months, Ndereba had stormed back into winning form, and in 1999 posted the year's fastest times in the world for 5 kilometers (15:09); 12K (38:37) 15K (48:52), and 10 miles (53:07). Also last year, she made her marathon debut here, finishing sixth in 2:28:27 after being shaken off by Roba in those same Newton Hills, and ending up being carted away from the finish line in a wheelchair after collapsing from dehydration.

That was last year. Since then, Ndereba, who spends part of the year living and training with a group of fellow Kenyans in Norristown, Pa., improved to second last fall in the New York City Marathon, and yesterday added Boston to her long list of triumphs. Her triumph may also earn her the remaining berth on the Kenyan Olympic marathon team, with countrywomen Tegla Loroupe and Joyce Chepchumba.

"I know for sure I'm a potential medalist,'' she said.

It's that kind of certainty that buoyed Ndereba in the early miles, when she was running well behind though still within sight of the lead pack of Roba, Bogacheva, Elana Meyer of South Africa, Sun Yingjie of China, and Anuta Catuna of Romania that ran together the first 16 miles, tucking in behind nearby men to get relief from the headwind. Sure that she could run the second half of the race as fast as the first - her splits turned out to be 1:13:05 and 1:13:06 - she stuck to her game plan and her pace. "I didn't want to lose the race the way I faded [last year],'' she said.

At Mile 16 Meyer dropped back, and the pack became four. Moments later there was no pack at all. Roba, despite seeming far less comfortable than in previous years, seemed to sense the oncoming hills lined with cheering, flag-waving throngs of Ethiopians that annually lift her spirits. She began to pull away on the long uphill over Route 128. Soon she had 10 meters on the others; by the firehouse it was 30. Yingjie tried to give chase, but as Roba strode up the first Newton hill a dozen countrymen leapt from the curb, waving flags while trying to keep pace with their champion, the race began to take on the aura of inevitability. Roba, the reigning Olympic gold medalist, was on her way to victory No. 4.

Shockingly, just before the foot of Heartbreak Hill, Ndereba came into view, and in a blink pulled even. "When I caught her I feel good,'' she said, explaining that she had planned to lay waste to Roba right then and there but was stopped by a left ankle, which had bothered her since warmups, that suddenly "was very much hurting'' as the pair began to descend the hill by Boston College. Ndereba was forced to bide her time, hoping the race would not come down to a sprint but sure that, given her speed vs. Roba's strength, she would prevail even if it did.

"I always have confidence in my kick,'' she declared. "You learn to do it even if you have pain.''

When Ndereba paused to retrieve a fluid bottle coming into Kenmore Square, Roba pulled ahead by a couple of strides, but Ndereba almost immediately pulled even again and surged ahead just before the Eliot Hotel. By the time she made the turn onto Boylston, she was nearly 50 yards ahead, smiling joyously and on her way to victory.

Bogacheva, meanwhile, was stalking Roba, and remarkably would catch her at the line, ruining Roba's day even further. "It was too cold,'' she said.

To win four times, as those who came before her - Clarence DeMar, Bill Rodgers, Cosmas Ndeti, and Uta Pippig - is not easy. Even to win three, said the gracious Ndereba, "is no joke.''

But to fall just short of history, however elusive it has proven to attain, hurts. Said Roba to her agent, Mark Wetmore: "I'm sorry.''

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