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Pack will be chasing Lee and Ndereba

By John Powers, Globe Staff, 4/15/2002

The Seoul Man doesn't mind going solo. Not last year, when he came out of the pack to end a decade of Kenyan domination. And not today, when Lee Bong Ju again will be the only Korean contender up against an African phalanx in the 106th running of the Boston Marathon.

''Marathon is an individual sport,'' said the 31-year-old Lee, who's bidding to become the first repeat victor since Cosmas Ndeti, who won in 1993, 1994, and 1995. ''Marathon is not a team sport. Last year, I ran by myself - and I won.''

Lee's victory - the first by a non-Kenyan since 1990 (Italy's Gelindo Bordin), the first by an Asian since 1987 (Japan's Toshihiko Seko), and the first by a Korean since 1950 (Kee Yong Ham) - gave hope to a cadre of sole practitioners who'd been lost amid what had become a Kenyan intramural meet.

''If I can win the race this time, it will be the same thing, a big impact,'' said Ecuador's Silvio Guerra, the two-time runner-up who hopes to become the first South American winner here since Colombia's Alvaro Mejia in 1971. ''The Kenyans are the best, but there are other people who can do it.''

Like Mexico's Andres Espinosa, who was runner-up (by 4 seconds) when Ndeti set the course record (2:07:15) in 1994. Or South Africa's Makhosonke Fika, who was in the lead with countryman Simon Mpholo halfway through last year's race before fading to ninth. Or Japan's Noriaki Igarashi, who comes here with three straight sub-2:10 efforts under his belt.

''It is not only the Kenyans,'' said Lee. ''There will be marathoners from all over the world.''

But the Kenyans, who've brought an elite group of nine led by Fred Kiprop (2:06:47 personal best), Simon Bor (2:08:47), Chicago victor Ben Kimondiu (2:08:52), Rodgers Rop (2:09:51), Joshua Chelang'a (2:10:29), and David Kiptum Busienei (2:10:38) still are the ones to beat. And after watching Lee smash their string of 10 straight triumphs in the Hopkinton-to-Copley Square jaunt, the Kenyans want payback.

''Our goal is to make sure we win,'' said Rop, who finished third in his marathon debut in New York last autumn. ''We are now fighting back to reclaim our title.''

The women's title seems a lock for the Kenyans, with world record-holder and defending champion Catherine ''The Great'' Ndereba (2:18:47), Esther Wanjiru Maina (2:23:31), and New York titlist Margaret Okayo (2:24:21) the class of the field.

''Everyone who is here is capable of doing it,'' insisted the 29-year-old Ndereba, who'll be bidding to become the third woman (with Germany's Uta Pippig and Ethiopia's Fatuma Roba) to win three straight here. ''It will depend on who will have the best race.''

Race in, race out for the last two years, that's been Ndereba, who's won four of the six she's entered (all in the US), including back-to-back Boston-Chicagos.

Last year, after dumping Roba in the Newton hills, Ndereba ran alone for the final 6 miles. Then, she came back in October to smash the global mark (2:19:46) that Naoko Takahashi had set just a week earlier in Berlin.

If she's motivated and can handle today's summery temperatures (forecast to approach 80 degrees), Ndereba could wipe out the course record (2:21:45) that Pippig set in 1994.

Should she take teammates Wanjiru and Okayo with her ahead of Ethiopia's Elfenesh Alemu and Romania's Nuta Olaru, the Kenyans will become the first country to sweep the women's medals since the Americans (Lisa Larsen-Weidenbach, Lynne Huntington, Karen Dunn) did it in 1985, the last year before prize money was offered.

The men's battle figured to be a chess match even before the predicted heat. ''It'll be a more strategic race,'' predicted four-time champ Bill Rodgers. ''Everyone will hold back.''

That won't bother Lee, who was content to trot along with Guerra and the Africans a year ago and let the hills do the whittling. Last time, a 20-man pack going through Wellesley had been reduced to three after Heartbreak Hill. Lee took the lead over Guerra and Chelang'a during the Haunted Mile after Lake Street and never looked back.

It was a career breakthrough for Lee, whose marriage in Seoul next Sunday to Kim Mi Soon will be front-page news. But his victory also hung a bull's-eye on him today, and Lee understands that. ''I am carrying the burden of the winner,'' he said. ''The others will challenge me.''

For a decade, the Kenyans challenged each other here. Then Ethiopia's Gezahegne Abera lost a photo finish to Elijah Lagat in 2000 and Lee ended their hegemony last year.

Time was when the BAA was Everyman's race: ''UNKNOWN BRICKLAYER WINS MARATHON.'' Then Lee proved it could be again. If Ecuadoran Guerra can dream, why not the Yanks, who've been wreathless here since 1983? ''An American's going to win this race,'' vowed Mark Coogan of Attleborough, who'll be favorite son today. ''Sooner or later.''

This story ran on page D1 of the Boston Globe on 4/15/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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