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Defending champion Ndereba makes short work of field

By John Powers, Globe Staff, 4/17/2001

aybe next year they'll tell Catherine Ndereba to carry her daughter on her back. Or make her start out by I-495. Or have her chug a beer every 5 kilometers. Anything to make the women's division of the Boston Marathon a footrace again.

''I think I don't need something to prove,'' proclaimed the 28-year-old Kenyan after she had retained her crown by busting Ethiopia's Fatuma Roba and leaving the rest of the field for roadkill. ''I think I have proved enough.''

What Catherine the Great proved yet again is that she's Madame Macadam, the queen of the road. From 5 kilometers to 26 miles, the world is at her feet.

Last year, Ndereba waited until the final mile before breaking Roba, the three-time defending champ. This time, she hammered her in the Newton hills and went on to win by nearly three minutes in 2 hours 23 minutes 53 seconds, with Poland's Malgorzata Sobanska (2:26:42), Russia's Lyubov Morgunova (2:27:18), Kenya's Lornah Kiplagat (2:27:56), and Roba (2:28:08) strung out behind her. Jill Gaitenby of Providence (2:36:45) was the top American woman, taking 14th.

Once Ndereba went into fifth gear after rounding the firehouse and heading up Commonwealth Avenue, an eight-woman chase quickly was reduced to two. And when Ndereba threw in a surge just before the second hill to open up a 100-yard lead, Roba was finished.

''Once she made that gap between myself and herself, I was not going to make it,'' conceded Roba, who was thwarted again in her bid to become the first woman to win Boston four times.

Maybe if she'd borrowed a mountain bike, Roba might have been able to run down Ndereba by Kenmore Square. But nobody was catching her on foot once she'd shed the pack.

''When Catherine ran, it was too fast,'' conceded Sobanska, who ran 48 seconds faster than her personal best but had lost sight of Ndereba by Newton City Hall.

For 17 miles, the pace was leisurely enough that any of the front-runners might have had a chance. At one point, Morgunova veered off to a water station and came back to find herself in front.

So closely were they grouped that Russia's Ludmila Petrova took a tumble near the 16-mile mark when someone clipped her heel.

''This was not an impressive pace,'' observed Sobanska, who led for most of the first 15 miles. ''It was a half-marathon pace. It was comfortable for me.''

It was comfortable for everybody, until Ndereba decided it was time to play hide-and-seek in the hills. Two years ago, in her marathon debut here, Ndereba hung with Roba until the road began rising, then faded to sixth. Last year, Ndereba caught Roba at the crest of Heartbreak Hill and shook her in the Back Bay.

This time, she ran the final half-dozen miles alone. The split sheet told the tale: NDEREBA ALL BY HERSELF.

Roba had sensed that might happen. She was feeling off-form, and she knew Ndereba was primed.

''I was a little weak today,'' acknowledged Roba. ''I wasn't in very good condition. It just so happened I couldn't make it.''

For a mile or so in the hills, Roba hung a few strides behind Ndereba. But when the Kenyan took it up a gear, Roba couldn't respond. Just before the 20-mile mark, Ndereba turned to check on Roba. She never bothered again.

By the time Ndereba went past Boston College, nobody else was in her ZIP code. Her lead was more than two minutes, her pursuers out of sight. Still, Ndereba was pumping on all pistons, as though she were being chased by hounds on Hereford Street. Why not?

''I was capable,'' said Ndereba, who ran the second half of the race in 1:10:53 and whose time was the seventh-fastest in race history. ''I was feeling like my body was responding. I had the confidence I can move at the same speed until the finish.''

The last few miles were for Kenya, which needed a champagne moment after its men were beaten for the first time in more than a decade. And for 3-year-old daughter Jane, who finally got to see her mother crowned with a foreign laurel wreath.

''I had never been with her when I win my races, except in Kenya,'' Ndereba said.

And, finally, for the Olympic selectors back home who'd left Ndereba off the team for Sydney last year after she'd won here. Now, Olympus seems a modest hill for Ndereba.

''I want something special,'' Catherine the Great mused. ''To hold a world record.''

This story ran on page G01 of the Boston Globe on 4/17/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

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