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Chepchumba has extended her goals

By Susan Bickelhaupt, Globe Staff, 4/18/2003

Joyce Chepchumba of Kenya had always excelled in 20K races and never considered running 26-plus miles. So when she went along with her friend, Tegla Loroupe, in the 1995 New York City Marathon, Chepchumba figured she'd peel off at the 20K mark. But she felt OK despite the wind and cold, and still felt fine at the 40K mark. "What have I done?" she asked herself, and thought of bailing out.

But between the throngs in Central Park cheering the racers and her competitive instincts that told her "it's only 2 more kilometers," Chepchumba kept running. Loroupe won the women's race and Chepchumba finished fourth. She has been running marathons ever since.

The following year Chepchumba finished second in New York and she won last year's race, finishing in 2:25.36.

So now, even though she still runs half-marathons and 20K races, the marathon has become her forte. She has won the London Marathon twice, the Chicago Marathon twice, and the Tokyo International Marathon. And she won the bronze medal in the marathon at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. In between, she won the Zurich-Ulster Half-Marathon last year, and won the Great Scottish Run Half-Marathon for the third straight time. In 2001, she won the Olspur and Berlin half-marathons.

Chepchumba will run Boston for the first time, but her credentials make her a top contender. She and her coach, Volker Wagner, arrived in town Tuesday night, so she hadn't seen the course as of yesterday. But that doesn't faze her, nor does the forecast of cool temperatures with a chance of rain. She trains in Germany, after all, where the conditions are nothing like where she grew up in Kenya.

Chepchumba, 32, said she's been running "almost all my life," and like most of her Kenyan neighbors would run from her small village to school every day.

"We had to be there by 7:45 in the morning, so if I left by 7, I'd have to run," she said. "And sometimes we'd come home for lunch, so I'd end up running 5 kilometers four times a day."

She ran track and cross-country in high school, then joined one of the country's many running clubs when she worked for the post office. She is married with an 11-year-old son, and trains both in Kenya and Detmold, Germany, where Wagner is based.

Chepchumba said she hadn't run Boston because it is scheduled so close to the London race (usually a week later), at which she ran her personal best in 1999 at 2:23:22.

"So I didn't do Boston because I'd been doing well in London," she said. "People said it's so hilly, but for me, everything is a risk. I've seen it on television, and said one time I'll try it."

It was Loroupe who brought her to train with Wagner, who coaches mostly men, including defending Boston champion Rodgers Rop. Wagner said he was surprised when Chepchumba went the distance in New York in 1995.

"She was not prepared to run a marathon," Wagner said. "And it was very cold and windy." He shakes his head and smiles, and Chepchumba laughs.

"The next time I ran a marathon was London, and I was second," she said. "So then I started to train hard."

"She's new to this race, but old to the business," Wagner said. "We have to make special training for downhill -- not just Heartbreak Hill, but the one that comes after that. People who run fast have to be prepared to run downhill, but you can't go too fast, or you'll hurt yourself."

Chepchumba just smiled when asked if she has any superstitions for race day.

"No, I'll just pray like I do every day," she said.

She's just breaking in the new running shoes that Nike had sent her, and hopes that the silver shoes with the yellow Swoosh and glittery laces will carry her through the race Monday. And as confident as she is -- offering to give away her shoes if she wins -- Chepchumba remains matter of fact.

"Nobody can predict that I'll win," she said. "I only say I'll win when I reach the line. And even if you are No. 10, you are still the winner of your own race . . . at least you finished."

This story ran on page F4 of the Boston Globe on 4/18/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

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