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Women's field will be focusing on quiet Okayo

By Susan Bickelhaupt, Globe Staff, 4/20/2003

Last year at this time, Catherine Ndereba, the two-time Boston Marathon winner, was vowing not just to win, but to set a course record. Well, she did break the record of 2 hours 21 minutes 45 seconds that Uta Pippig had set in 1994, but guess what? Someone else did, too. Margaret Okayo established the record of 2:20:43, beating out Ndereba (2:21:12) to win in her Boston debut.

Ndereba won't be back for tomorrow's 107th running of the Boston Marathon -- she ran the London Marathon two weeks ago, finishing second -- but Okayo will be, and she'll have plenty of competition. Among them are first-time Boston Marathon runners Joyce Chepchumba of Kenya and American Marla Runyan.

Last year, it wasn't just that Okayo won, but how she won, that was so impressive. She and Ndereba were neck and neck for most of the race, and it appeared Ndereba was trailing Okayo just enough to keep pace, then overtake her. But Okayo kicked it into high gear and took off as they headed into Kenmore Square.

Okayo's 2002 Boston time is ranked among the top-10 fastest marathon finishes for women.

"I think Margaret's performance last year was exceptional," said Runyan, a contender to be the top American finisher tomorrow. "Boston last year was one of the most spectacular marathons ever run. If she has brought her A-plus game, Margaret's going to be tough to beat."

Okayo, who won the New York City Marathon in 2001, followed her Boston win with a fifth-place finish in New York last fall, suffering from a sore back. But a month later, she seemed fully recovered and set a course record at the Milan City Marathon (2:24:59), the fastest time ever for a woman in Italy.

Okayo's voice is as slight as her 4-foot-11-inch frame. Asked Friday by reporters if she can repeat her performance, she just shrugged and smiled. "I don't know, but I'm going to try," she said quietly.

But any timidness dissolves when the race begins.

Okayo, 26, has won five of the eight marathons she has entered, and last year was ranked the No. 2 marathoner in the world by Track & Field News.

She started running as a youngster in the fairly typical Kenyan way -- to school and back.

"It was about 3 kilometers each way, in the morning and at night, and home for lunch," she said.

Okayo trains in Kenya and northern Italy as part of Dr. Gabriele Rosa's Fila team.

She ran her first marathon in Chicago in 1999, finishing second to Chepchumba in a duel. The next year, Okayo won San Diego's Rock 'N' Roll Marathon, setting a course record of 2:27:05. In the 2001 edition of the Rock 'N' Roll Marathon, she set the new mark at 2:25:05. Later that fall, Okayo won New York in 2:24:21, breaking a 10-year-old course record.

For her performance last year, Okayo, who also excels at shorter distances, was presented yesterday with a gold medal, a new award to be given to the runner who breaks the Boston course record.

Joan Benoit Samuelson, Olympic gold medalist and two-time Boston Marathon winner, said she won't be surprised if Okayo betters her performance of last year. "I think she will," Samuelson said. "I think she's going to be motivated by what happened in London."

In that race, Paula Radcliffe of Great Britain set a world record in 2:15:25, edging second-place finisher Ndereba (2:19:55) by more than three minutes.

But maybe that will motivate all the runners.

"I'd love to think Marla can go with her, and Joyce is going to be in the hunt, so I think it's going to be a pretty good race," said Samuelson.

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