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Lagat had Olympic disappointment after Boston victory

By Joe Burris, Globe Staff, 4/15/2001

NANDI DISTRICT, Kenya -- Elijah Lagat is seated in a dimly lit room of his home. He has taken a timeout from a hectic schedule, but he won't be stationary for long.

The world-class distance runner has only a few minutes to chat, for he must head to nearby Eldoret International Airport for a one-hour flight to Nairobi, where he is scheduled to compete in Kenya's National Cross-Country Championships. Afterward, he will return home to begin training to defend his 2000 Boston Marathon crown.

Lagat talks about his humble beginnings in a sport he took up eight years ago, when he began jogging to lose weight and relieve pressure on his heart.

He talks about the win at Boston, where he beat out Ethiopia's Gezahegne Abera and fellow Kenyan and two-time Boston winner Moses Tanui in the closest finish in the storied race's history.

Lagat reflects upon the letdown that followed at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and how his life has changed in the past eight years. Then comes a query that makes him smile.

What if all this had never happened?

What if Lagat, 34, had watched his weight and exercised through the years, instead of living the life of a workaholic, going from his job at the Ministry of Education and back home and back to work, putting on extra baggage along the way?

What if, after losing the extra weight by jogging every day after work, Lagat had merely left it at that, a physically fit man with a new lease on life, instead of discovering a penchant for distance running and opting to compete in a local short-distance race in January 1993?

Instead of subsequently incorporating a runner's regimen -- logging kilometers up and down the steep, high-altitude Nandi terrain -- suppose Lagat had returned to the low road, the one that included a steady job and a decent living?

"Well, I still do some work with the Ministry of Education," he said. "So I think I could still be in that office. Although in my part time, I used to farm."

Surely there's nothing wrong with raising cattle and growing corn in the Kenyan countryside. But in eight years, Lagat has gone from a government worker and part-time farmer to someone who is seeing the world and competing on a global stage.

"I realized I had an inborn talent," he said. "I trained for a short time and I managed to succeed. Because, you see, I started running in 1993 not for competition, just for fitness. But by the end of the year, I was able to compete in an international meet."

After experiencing some difficulty breathing in late 1992, Lagat was instructed by a physician to lose weight or risk damage to his heart. He began jogging Jan. 1, 1993. The first week, he did 21/2 kilometers a day. He doubled the distance the next week, and again the next.

"As soon as I began to run, I was getting in shape," he said. "Then I realized, why don't I try to compete? And when I competed, I realized I was beating some international athletes. That's when I got a lot of encouragement."

His first race was Discovery Kenya, a short-distance race in late January. Then came Kenya's National Cross-Country Championships in February. Then the Mombasa (Kenya) Marathon in July. By December, he was performing well enough to finish third among several top international runners in a cross-country race in South Africa.

"When you talk to many people, even people in my heritage, many of them cannot believe it," said Lagat. "It is only when they can see that I'm doing it."

Seeing his home is believing. Lagat's two-story abode is decorated with trophies, plaques, and posters from running events. There's even a framed certificate from the Hopkinton Public Schools in his living room.

Boston breakthrough

Lagat's story culminated last year in Boston. Both Lagat and Abera were timed in 2 hours 9 minutes 47 seconds, and Tanui came in three seconds later, marking the narrowest gap ever among the top three finishers.

Lagat claimed the surprising win in his first Boston run by outkicking the others on Boylston Street. First he passed Abera, then Tanui, who had committed to sprinting too soon. Lagat then nipped Abera at the finish.

"Last year, I think I was in very, very, very good shape, because over the last 10 kilometers I was still feeling OK, feeling strong," said Lagat. "I was strong enough, because I was in front for most of the time. I was still able to have a strong finishing kick."

That victory vaulted Lagat from a virtual unknown to world renown, although he had been successful in several marathons before Boston. His personal best is 2:07 in Berlin in 1997. He also won Prague in 1998 and placed seventh in Rotterdam (1996), 10th in Chicago (1998), and sixth in New York (1999).

"In 1994, I ran in the London Marathon, but the weather was not good for me," said Lagat. "But 1995 was when I had my serious marathon running. That is when I ran Frankfurt in 2:12 and came in second. That is where my marathon career started."

The win at Boston earned Lagat a spot on the Kenyan national team for the Olympics. But then his uplifting story turned sour.

Last July, as he was preparing for Sydney, Lagat was surprised to learn he was being dropped from the team along with Tanui and Tokyo Marathon winner Japhet Kosgei. Kenyan Amateur Athletics Association officials criticized the three marathoners' preparation for Sydney, though Tanui insists to this day they were removed for criticizing officials. Allegations flew back and forth, and Lagat figured his Olympic hopes were doused.

Then, in late July, after Ondoro Osoro was shot in the neck by carjackers, Lagat was asked to return to the team.

Lagat returned, but with his training interrupted, he wasn't the same. He didn't even finish the Sydney marathon. The gold medal was won by Abera, the man he had beaten at Boston. Kenyan Eric Wainaina took second.

"I know why I had problems in Sydney," said Lagat. "It's because when they brought me back to the team, I wanted to prove to them that I was really capable to win. And I think the training I did was much harder than even for Boston."

Lagat hopes the Sydney fiasco is behind his country's runners, but said, "With Kenya, you never know."

Last year's win gave Kenya 10 consecutive Boston triumphs, surpassing the streak of US runners from 1916-25. This year, he is hoping to become the first to successfully defend a Boston crown since Cosmas Ndeti captured three straight from 1993-95.

Though Kenyans have been successful in marathons around the world, Lagat said it is no coincidence they have dominated Boston.

"You see, where we train here, there are a lot of hills and downhills," he said. "The course of Boston also has a lot of hills, and someone like me, I like running hills and a lot of downhills."

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

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