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They'll take a run at defending championships

Ndereba learned how to win, now is balancing her lifes

By Barbara Huebner, Globe Staff, 4/15/2001

As Catherine Ndereba sits drinking tea and chatting, her 3-year-old daughter is playing cymbals with a pair of polystyrene saucers. Until she decides she needs some tea of her own and is off in search. Until she's distracted by the marker in her tiny left hand, and is reaching up to cover the bottom of a conference room whiteboard with numbers 1 through 9, mostly backward and missing a few.

It's the first time little Jane has been out of Kenya to watch Ndereba race, and it's obviously quite an occasion for both mother and daughter.

"She's very much excited," said Ndereba. "She says, `Wow, is this where always you go when you go to run? Is this always where you'll be?' I said, `Yes, this is where I'll always be."'

Maybe not quite always, but the Boston Marathon route from Hopkinton to Boylston Street will forever be in her heart as the site of her first marathon victory, a come-from-behind effort last year that denied Fatuma Roba of Ethiopia the chance to make history by winning four in a row.

Ndereba's first effort here is remembered not as warmly. In 1999, she chose Boston as the site of her debut at the 26.2-mile distance after having established herself as a formidable force on the roads. (In 1996, for instance, she ran 17 races, winning 12 and finishing second in the rest.) She had high hopes but made the rookie mistake of going out too fast. After sticking with Roba into Newton, she faded badly down the stretch.

"She was capable of her pace, and I was not," said Ndereba.

Disappointed with her sixth-place finish in 2 hours 28 minutes 27 seconds, she vowed to learn from her mistake. She certainly has. That fall at the New York City Marathon, she ran a smart race to finish second. Then, last spring, she came back to Boston to claim her first laurel wreath in a race almost the mirror image of her flawed effort the year before. In seventh place and behind the leader by almost a minute at the halfway point, Ndereba reeled everyone in one by one until she caught Roba as they went up Heartbreak Hill. They ran together until, just before Mass. Ave., Ndereba took the lead and kept it.

So focused was her strategy, so easily was she running, that she failed to notice the legendary hill at 20 miles. "Have I not faced the Heartbreaker?" she wondered miles later. "I found myself finishing the race without seeing it."

This time, disappointment would come a few weeks later when she was left off the Kenyan Olympic team despite having just beaten Roba, the reigning Olympic champion. Countrywoman Joyce Chepchumba went on to win the bronze medal, and Ndereba believes there could have been two Kenyans on the podium in Sydney. "I watched," she said. "I was thinking I could be in the top three."

Now she is back, and expectations are high. Since her victory last Patriots Day, Ndereba became the fourth-fastest female marathoner in history, behind only Tegla Loroupe, Ingrid Kristiansen, and Joan Benoit Samuelson, when she went to Chicago on a mission to prove the Olympic selectors wrong and won in 2:21:33. In only 18 months, Ndereba had shaved almost 7 minutes off her time.

"She's certainly one of the women in contention right now to run a sub-2:20," said Samuelson. "She's been around a while, but not long enough to have run her best races. She's like me: She goes out there and runs the way she feels, and most of the time she feels pretty good."

Anything under 2:20:43 would give Ndereba the world record. "It has not yet come into my mind," she said. "Maybe later."

Although she wouldn't have broken the world record, Ndereba would have come closer in Chicago if, in reaching for her own, she hadn't accidentally knocked another runner's bottle off a table at the last water stop. A few steps later, not knowing if she could be disqualified for the mishap and just plain feeling bad, she decided to go back and put it right.

"I didn't want anyone to be annoyed or make them miss their water," she said. "I was like mixed up."

Had she not stopped, she might have threatened another significant mark: Samuelson's course (also American) record of 2:21:21.

Samuelson, the 1984 Olympic gold medalist, sees something very familiar in the 28-year-old Ndereba. "I think so highly of Catherine as a person who just speaks her mind and lives her life and runs her own race," she said. "In that way we're very similar: Running is certainly very important in our lives, but it's not everything. I think the balance she brings with her daughter and her husband and the relationship they have been able to maintain across the pond is just incredible."

Since coming back from a layoff in 1997 to have the baby, Ndereba has spent four or five months each year competing in the United States while her husband, Anthony Maina, stays behind with Jane in their four-bedroom Nairobi home, getting help from the sisters and sisters-in-law who live with them. Not long ago, such an absentee arrangement would have been questioned by much of Kenyan society, but the success by the likes of Ndereba, Loroupe, and Chepchumba, among others, has started to change that.

"As many people now see that we keep on doing it, they understand what we can do," said Ndereba.

Although Ndereba readily acknowledges that leaving her daughter is the hardest part of racing, she does not lament it. "If you don't have something to sacrifice, then you don't have anything to gain," she said. "That's why I believe. I love Jane as my daughter. I love Anthony as my husband. And I also love my career, and I must respect it."

Her husband, watching over Jane the past week as mom conducted interviews, echoed her philosophy. "We miss her," he said. "But it's a job she has to do."

On this day, Ndereba's jobs have converged. Her smile is wide as she watches Jane bustle around, showing off a Marathon credential that hangs to her knees and scurrying over to get in every possible photograph.

In the John Hancock Conference Center, the family has been given two adjoining rooms to ensure that Ndereba gets her pre-race sleep, but mom said it's not a problem.

"She sleeps the whole night," Ndereba reported, glancing at her daughter with a smile wider than ever.

This story ran on page C1 of the Boston Globe on 4/15/2001. Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

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