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In Boston or Kenya, he's king of the hills

By Joe Concannon, Globe Staff, 04/18/99

he first traces of dawn are not yet apparent out there in Eldoret, in the Rift Valley in the west of Kenya, when Moses Tanui sets out from his farm on his first training run of the day. It is dark. The scene illustrates what has been termed ''the loneliness of the long-distance runner.'' How can you see at this time? ''You can see the ground,'' responds Tanui.

Golfing legend Ben Hogan used to imply that you carve out your game from the earth, the turf, the soil. You put in your hours striking golf balls, you sacrifice. Tanui takes it to a different level. He is a child of the Kenyan countryside, one of the world's elite marathoners. Tanui is a father of three, a gentleman farmer, a runner.

When he is kidded about being called the Mayor of Eldoret, he laughs. He is a quiet man who raises cows and sheep and grows vegetables on his farm. Do his children work on the farm? ''They go to school,'' Tanui says of Kiprotich, Mitiam, and Kiptoo. This is part of the fabric of Kenya's running tradition, kids growing up on farms, running to school, and some going on to dominate the roads and tracks of the globe.

Tanui is one of them. He is a significant part of the Boston Marathon's Kenyan connection and will be the defender when the 103d rendition of the world's oldest continuing marathon begins tomorrow at noon by the Village Green in Hopkinton. Tanui also won the centennial race in 1996.

The Kenyans have been a dominant force in Boston ever since Ibrahim Hussein won his first title in 1988 and followed it with triumphs in 1991 and 1992. Cosmas Ndeti, who won't be present this year because of injuries, won the next three, setting the course record of 2:07:15 in 1994. Tanui won in 1996 but finished fifth in 1997 when he was suffering from bronchitis; countryman Lameck Aguta won that race.

Tanui made it two out of three a year ago when he heroically ran down countryman Joseph Chebet to win by three seconds in 2:07:34, the race's third-fastest time. Hussein won Boston three times, Ndeti three, and now Tanui points for No. 3. He sat back a year ago, allowing Chebet to seize the lead. Then the 10,000-meter-man-turned-marathoner relied on his track instincts.

When Tanui ran in the World Track and Field Championships in 1991 in Tokyo, Kenyan Richard Chelimo was leading for most of the 10,000. Chelimo was the teenager, Tanui the wily veteran, even eight years ago. But Tanui simply turned it on to outkick his competitor, just as he did a year ago in Boston's 102d race as they turned the corner on Hereford Street and headed to the finish line by the Boston Public Library on Boylston Street.

''There is a lot of pressure,'' says Tanui, who will be joined by Chebet and seven other elite Kenyan runners in the race. ''They want to get me now, because I am defending champion and everybody's saying he wants to win Boston because it's a big marathon.

''It's not getting easier, it's getting difficult. They want to get me. I'd like to win, because I've been training hard.''

The only race in his recent buildup was the Kyoto Half-Marathon March 4, when he won in course-record time of 1:01:06. He was fifth in the Tokyo Half-Marathon Jan. 19 in 1:01:47.

The memories of Boston 1998 are vivid.

''It was a very difficult race,'' says Tanui. When they ran very fast, I thought they could not finish. After they passed the half, they were running very fast. I think everything was right to run the way I ran. I've been training very hard for this race, and anything can happen.''

Tanui, 33, used to train in solitude but now runs with partners in the hills where they have a camp.

''We have a team now,'' he says. ''Some are running marathons, some are racing on the roads.

''The weather was changing all the time. Raining, sometimes hot. The weather was so bad this year. When it is raining and it is hot, it is difficult to cope with the weather.'' He sees the current weather in the Greater Boston area as a bonus, ''unless the wind is coming from the east.''

Tanui burst onto the global stage with that victory in the World Championships in 1991, then became the first to break 60 minutes in the half-marathon when he ran 59:47 in Milan in 1993. He made the Kenyan team for the 1987 World Cross-Country Championships and finished 18th as his team won the title. He finished sixth, ninth, second, and fourth the next four years as his team won, and he was on a sixth championship team six years ago.

He has, in a word, endured. His marathon debut was in New York on Nov. 14, 1993, and he finished 10th. He has never been out of the top 10 in his six marathons.

There have been few downsides in his career, but one was in 1990, when a right knee injury sidelined him.

''It was the worst period of my career,'' he says. ''I felt like I was in a tunnel without exit. Days of real disappointment. Even if I was under treatment, the pain was still there.'' This brought him into contact with Italian doctor Bagriele Rosa, who still works with him.

Tanui seems relaxed, confident, and ready to head into the Newton Hills on a high.

''When you have been planning something for quite some time, you know everything,'' he says, ''and the only problem is the pressure from the other athletes. I know there are many athletes who would like to be the champion. That is the pressure I have at the moment.''

He trains on hills ranging in altitude from 2,300 to 3,800 meters. The training has gone well. The long runs have been between 35 and 38 kilometers.

''The Kenyans go for training,'' says Tanui, ''and they leave aside everything. They go for training, and only training. They leave their farms, or their place of work. When we train, we go to bed at 8 o'clock and we go out at 5.''

There is no particular race strategy; he'll just let it roll.

''I will,'' says Tanui, ''do my best.

This story ran on page C23 of the Boston Globe on 04/18/99.
© Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.

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