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Kiplagat is centered in the hills of Kenya

By Susan Bickelhaupt, Globe Staff, 4/11/2001

    Lornah Kiplagat Lornah Kiplagat's running center affords young Kenyans a rich opportunity. (Globe Staff photo / Jonathan Wiggs)


ONCORD - When Lornah Kiplagat gets to the Boston Marathon starting line in Hopkinton, she'll have just one thing on her mind - finishing ahead of the pack in Copley Square.

But after she's wrapped herself in a silver aluminum foil blanket and answered all the questions from the press, Kiplagat will go back to her hotel room here, log on to her laptop, and read the e-mails that have been sent from a training center in a small town in Kenya. It's called the High Altitude center. It's Kiplagat's center.

The center is not what she thinks about when she races, she said, but it's what she runs for.

The center, whose main focus is women, can house 40 runners. It pays their expenses, from room and board to training to travel expenses to races. It fills a void. Kiplagat, 26, never had this kind of opportunity after high school. So she set out on her own course - one that included leaving home and heading for Europe.

Kenyan men have been winning races for a long time, she said, noting that the boys in her high school usually would join the army when they graduated, where they could run virtually fulltime. The girls, though, would have to scramble for jobs from companies that would sponsor them to run. It might have been a bank, the post office, or a prison, she said, but nothing was as fulltime as what the men were offered.

''I had a lot of reasons why the camp started, and this was one of the reasons,'' she said. ''To give opportunities to women.''

Kiplagat's forte is shorter distances - she set the world record in the 10K in the Netherlands last month, set a course record at the Atlanta Peachtree Classic (also a 10K) last July, then set a course record at the Falmouth Road Race (7.1K) the next month. But she has found longer races suit her just as much.

In 1997, Kiplagat ran her first marathon, at Los Angeles. She won in 2:33.50, and won the following year, too (2:34.03).

She came to Boston two years ago to see the course, and came back last year to race it. The cool weather and headwind didn't suit her, and though she was running even with friend and countrywoman Catherine Ndereba with 2 miles to go, Kiplagat was dehydrated. Ndereba went on to win the race, while Kiplagat finished fifth, in 2:30.12.

Now, coming off a second-place finish in the Lisbon Half Marathon April 1, Kiplagat is one of the favorites to win Monday's race.

''I feel stronger than last year,'' she said. ''I have to have a lucky day that day, but I have a chance, I'm trained for it.''

Kiplagat ran cross-country in high school, but didn't see a future in it.

''I was just doing it because I was the fastest,'' she said. ''I never thought I was serious about being an athlete.''

But she wasn't so sure about continuing with school. When she was offered a scholarship to a medical school in India, Kiplagat turned it down because a cousin had gone to India and returned with some medical problems.

''It was nice, but I didn't want it,'' she said.

Her parents, who owned a farm, were appalled.

''They couldn't understand why, and I didn't have their support,'' she said. ''So I just left home.''

She went to stay with a cousin, and eventually went to Europe, where she started running 10K and 15K races and winning. After six months of prize money, and a sponsorship by Saucony, Kiplagat returned home and told her parents.

''This is better than India,'' she said, handing them her winnings and showing them pictures of her races as proof of what their daughter had been up to.

''They couldn't believe it,'' she said. Another skirmish arose later when they suggested Kiplagat sign up with a well-known manager. She wanted to start with someone smaller.

''It was not easy, but I always wanted to keep my own way,'' she said. ''So with all those problems, I thought, once I get something I like to do, I'm going to give something back. and that was one of the reasons I started the training camp.''

The training center is located in Iten, about two hours from Eldoret, where she grew up. She spends part of her time there, and part in Holland, with her husband, Pieter Langerhorst. In between she traverses the globe to run races, competing in about one race a month.

The High Altitude Center, which was officially opened last November, is next to plenty of hills and roads of red-clay dirt that runners say is perfect for training. The 20 bedrooms house two people each, and have showers and hot water - a luxury in Kenya. The center has a restaurant staffed with professional cooks, who use potatoes and maize from Kiplagat's parents' farm.

There's a small store at the Center, and a computer that the runners can use. Cars and drivers are on hand to take the athletes to races.

Kiplagat's older sister, Monica, is manager of the Center and keeps track of the bookkeeping in Lornah's absences. The runners also can work at the Center or in the store, or learn to cook.

''If it turns out after a year or two they don't have enough talent to make it in running, then at least we give them something,'' said Langerhorst, a marketing consulting for Saucony footwear.

The applicants have to finish high school, he said, then run in a 10K competition, he said.

''They don't have to win, but if they run well, then we start talking to them,'' Langerhorst said.

Kiplagat put all her winnings into opening the center, which came to ''a few hundred thousand dollars last year,'' said her husband.

''She said, `Hey Pieter, I started with nothing, so if I end up with nothing, I haven't lost anything,''' he said. ''That's the way she is.''

Kiplagat said that a lot of her fellow racers discouraged her from opening a center while she was focusing on winning races.

''My friends told me it wasn't possible to combine a camp with my running, and I just wanted to convince them that it was possible to separate this kind of thing from your running,'' she said.

It hasn't seemed to hinder Kiplagat, who has set records and run 10 personal-best times since formulating the idea.

''So when I run, my mind is completely clear,'' she said. ''After the race, I can think about it.''

On Monday, then, Kiplagat's mind will be on the hills of Commonwealth Avenue before she can afford to let it wander to the hills of Kenya.

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