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Breaking away

Abera hopes to end Kenyan 'stronghold'

By Allen Lessels, Globe Staff, 4/14/01

Ethiopian Gezahegne Abera, the Olympic gold medalist, took one look at the BAA Official Program for Monday's 105th running of the Boston Marathon and loved what he saw.

There he is, standing tall, smack dab in the middle of a small pack of Kenyans during last year's race.

That's exactly where running's young gun stayed most of the way in his Boston debut a year ago.

Abera, Elijah Lagat, and Moses Tanui sliced and diced, jockeyed and jostled, all

Lynch takes another giant step with 26.2-foot walk. A1

the way to the tape for an exceedingly tight -- and somewhat contentious -- finish, the closest in history.

Lagat won in 2:09:47. Abera was credited with the same time -- and the runner-up spot. Tanui, the two-time champion, was three seconds back.

All are back for Monday's race, and Abera, who turns 23 a week from Monday, is raring to do it all again. With, of course, different results.

"I've had very good training and I'm physically fit," said Abera through an interpreter in the lobby of the Copley Plaza Hotel Thursday. "Hopefully on Monday I'll be winning the Marathon."

He seemed unconcerned that his words or the program cover -- with the line "Ethiopian Abera looks to break Kenya's stronghold on the men's race" -- might fire up the Kenyans.

"I don't think this time the Kenyans will easily win the race because I am prepared, too," Abera said, according to Telahun Gebrehiwot of Cambridge, an instructor at Roxbury Community College. "I think the history of the Boston Marathon will change dramatically and will go back to the Ethiopians."

It has been an impressive Kenyan run: Lagat made it 10 straight Kenyan winners.

Lagat, Tanui, and their countrymen will likely have something to say about this year's race, too.

It should make for another interesting event. Last year, after their tussle on the tar, Abera and the Kenyans had a war of words.

Abera said Lagat and Tanui ganged up on him on the course. There was pushing and shoving and they left him no room to move ahead, he said. Nonsense, they replied. If there was any nasty stuff going on, the Kenyans said, they were on the receiving end. And they would have preferred to let Abera take his turn in the front, but he declined.

Abera does not expect any problems this time. He will try to become only the second Ethiopian male, joining Abebe Mekonnen in 1989, to win the Marathon.

Bill Rodgers thinks Abera can do it. Rodgers, the four-time Boston winner and Channel 5 analyst, picked Abera last year and is going with him again. For good reason.

A year ago, Abera came here off a big and fast win in the Fukuoka Marathon in 2:07:54.

He went from here and -- as his coach, Belay Wolasha, predicted -- won the Olympic Marathon in Sydney, by 20 seconds in 2:10:11.

At about the 101/2-mile mark, Abera got tripped and tumbled.

"My right arm was bleeding, and not only that, blood was coming into my shoes," he said. "I just felt I was very hopeless. But a competitor has one of two things in mind -- that he has to finish the race or he has to win. That was only the start of the race and I was hopeful I could run that long distance and would finish the race or win the race."

Abera led a strong Ethiopian performance in the distance events and became the first male from his country to win gold since Mamo Wolde in 1968, who followed Abebe Bikila in 1960 and 1964.

"People recognize me when I walk in the streets of the city," said Abera, who trains in Addis Ababa. "People will shout and call my name and come surround me. In fact, I have found it a little difficult walking in the streets. It is very good. It shows how much my country loves marathoners."

Fatuma Roba, whose string of three straight Boston wins was broken last year, is very supportive, he said.

And the rivalry with their African neighbors continues.

"It's a great challenge, mainly because there have not been as many top Ethiopians until pretty recently," Rodgers said. "The country was at war and in chaos and struggled to get programs in place and now you are starting to see them win. They are starting to produce."

Abera is among the leaders.

"Because he's the Olympic champion doesn't mean he's going to win," Rodgers said. "But he's definitely a top contender and he beat everyone at the Olympics, including Lagat. He ran smart here last year and he was always in contention. He didn't try to take the lead early. He laid low and kept an eye on things."

Maybe it's a trend. At the Olympics, the relative newcomer to elite marathoning came up with a list of entrants and asked Mark Wetmore, his Boston-based agent, to help identify the best runners.

Abera memorized the names and numbers so he could keep track of them in the race.

Apparently, it worked.

Now, he will try to keep an eye on Lagat and Tanui, the rest of the Kenyans, Korean Bong-Ju Lee, and any other contenders and put his newfound course knowledge to work.

"It can be treacherous the first time on the course," Rodgers said. "Abera knows it now. And he's come so close to winning. I think he'll be real psyched. He's for real."

This story ran on page 01 of the Boston Globe on 4/14/2001. Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

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