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Inspired Roba able to flag down three in a row

By Barbara Huebner, Globe Staff, 04/20/99

n route to her Boston Marathon victories the past two years, Fatuma Roba's journey through the Newton hills was made easier by the flag waving and joyous cheering of her fellow Ethiopians, many of whom gloried in dashing into the street to run with her for as long as their full hearts could manage.

So it was no surprise to the 27-year-old Roba when a dozen or so exuberant members of the local Ethiopian community met her yesterday on the second hill. She especially loved their sense of timing: Running on course-record pace under a sapping sun, Roba was starting to falter.

''I was very tired,'' she said afterward through a translator. ''To be honest, the flags gave me a boost.''

If the flags gave her a boost, the headband sent her heavenward. She donned the red, green, and yellow gift thrust at her by an admirer, rewarding him with a glowing smile, then sped off to victory in 2 hours 23 minutes 25 seconds, joining Uta Pippig as the only women to win three straight Boston Marathons since women were officially allowed to compete in 1972.

''It makes it very special to me to win a third time,'' said Roba, whose victory earned her $80,000.

Second ($40,000) was Franziska Rochat-Moser of Switzerland in 2:25:51, while Japan's Yuko Arimori, now living in Boulder, Colo., was third ($22,500) in 2:26:39. Lynn Jennings of Newmarket, N.H., went through the halfway point in 1:12 but faded to finish 12th in 2:38:37.

''I knew it would be difficult,'' said Jennings, her legs so stiff she needed help getting up the few steps to the microphone at her press gathering. ''I was not really prepared to start hurting the way I was at 15 or 16 miles.''

It turns out that Roba, too, was hurting, with blisters on the toes of her right foot slowing her in the last miles.

''I was expecting a better time, 2:21 or 2:22, but unfortunately this was the time that I had,'' she said.

Coming through the halfway point, the women were led by Sun Yingjie, a 20-year-old from Liaoning, China, running her fifth marathon but her first outside her country. Seemingly overexcited, the young runner took off like a shot, putting 49 seconds on the pack by 3.1 miles and 55 seconds by 6.2 miles.

But by 9.3 miles, Roba and Kenyan Catherine Ndereba, making her marathon debut, were beginning to reel her in, closing the gap to 41 seconds, and by 13.1, the midpoint of the race, Roba and Ndereba - having finally realized there was someone in front of them - were only seven seconds back and working together to close fast.

''At first I didn't know'' someone else was in the lead, Roba said. ''Later I noticed, and just decided I had to change my pace. I wasn't scared of the Chinese runner.''

Neither, it turns out, was anyone else.

''I think no one was taking her seriously,'' said Rochat-Moser. ''I think all the girls looked at [each] other but not at the Chinese girls.'' Sun's teammate, 21-year-old Ai Dongmei, finished 19th in 2:47:11.

Sun's eagerness took her through the half in 1:10:20, a pace to break the world record, but she was passed just steps later by both Roba and Ndereba and would finish a painful 11th in 2:37:11. She was quickly put on intravenous fluids to combat dehydration.

The race was down to Roba and Ndereba, the 26-year-old Kenyan who has twice been ranked the No. 1 runner of the year for her success at shorter distances. For 3 miles, the rookie ran right on the veteran's shoulder, matching her stride for stride with both still on a pace to run the fastest women's marathon in history as they made the turn by the firehouse on Commonwealth Avenue.

But entering the Newton hills, they were in Roba's land. Less than a mile later, at 18, the Ethiopian had been so uplifted by her supporters that she was 20 yards ahead. By 20 miles, on Heartbreak Hill, it was 160 yards, and soon Ndereba was nowhere to be seen. She would finish sixth in 2:28:27, yet another competitor vanquished by the 1996 Olympic gold medalist and now three-time Boston Marathon winner who appears destined to have her name etched in history with the likes of Joan Benoit Samuelson, Ingrid Kristiansen, Rosa Mota, and Grete Waitz.

This story ran on page F01 of the Boston Globe on 04/20/99.
© Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.

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