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Hopkinton kids learn from the best

By Shira Springer, Globe Correspondent, 04/16/99

HOPKINTON - The master of ceremonies needed only one question to work the crowd into a frenzy.

''Who won last year's race?'' he asked.

The 600 school children at Elmwood Elementary school squealed with delight and waved miniature Kenyan flags. They all knew who stood behind the wall of fog at the gymnasium entrance.

''Mo-ses, Mo-ses, Mo-ses,'' the students chanted.

With that welcome, defending champion Moses Tanui emerged from the fog, walked through the screaming crowd and joined his countrymen at the front of the gym.

Kenyan Day had officially commenced.

''It was wonderful to be with the young children,'' said Tanui afterward. ''It makes other things distant. You don't think too much about the race. When you hear the screaming, you know people like you and you feel the excitement.''

The festivities marked the seventh annual John Hancock Running and Fitness ''Adopt-a-Marathoner'' program. The Hopkinton students adopted the 10 Kenyan marathoners entered in Monday's race. Yesterday's event served as the culmination of a cultural exchange between the elite marathoners and the children.

The celebration demonstrated the special relationship between the top distance runners in the world and the community that hosts the Marathon. John Hancock and its clinic program provide a rare opporunity for outreach between fans and athletes, helping the elite runners become familiar names and faces.

''This gives the children a chance to meet and get to know some of the best athletes in the world in a very personal setting and get to know these athletes as individuals,'' said Fred Treseler, who directs the John Hancock running and fitness clinics for the Marathon and served as master of ceremonies yesterday. ''When they go out to watch the race it's not just the Kenyans. It's John Kagwe who they asked about winning the New York Marathon. They can say, `There's Moses Tanui, who won this race two times. He has a son Ruto who likes to play soccer and I like to play soccer.'''

Ten-year-old Matt Rhone ranked Tanui and the Kenyans, a close third on his list of favorite sports stars behind Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky. And fifth-grader Bryan Mazaika agreed that familiarity produces fans.

''When I see them run, I can say, `Hey mom and dad, I was able to talk to them,''' he said. ''I'm going to cheer for all of them because I'll get a chance to talk to all of them and get to know them better.''

The audience greeted the runners with the word ''Jambo,'' which means welcome in Swahili, then sang the Kenyan national anthem for their guests. After the general assembly, the fifth-grade class met with the athletes in small groups and asked questions about life in their East African nation. The 10- and 11-year-olds had studied Kenyan culture and history as part of their curriculum.

The clinic concluded with the Hopkinton High School boys and girls track team joining the Kenyans for a ceremonial jog in front of the elementary school.

''It was very nice and I had a wonderful time,'' said Catherine Ndereba, who will make her marathon debut as the only elite female Kenyan in Monday's race. ''It's not many races that can take you to school to talk and I always have a wonderful time with kids.''

Added Kagwe, ''I like the weather. I like the kids. You feel at home here. There are no words to describe [the assembly]. There's no other marathon that compares to the reception in Boston. Kids know this is John. This is Moses. This is Joseph. They have a special way of knowing us because we talk to them personally.''

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