Rodgers Rop, the 28-year-old Nairobi police officer who came out of obscurity two years ago to win both the Boston and New York City marathons, had a down year in 2003. For him.
After producing two firsts and a third (New York 2001) in the first three marathons of his career, Rop placed seventh in Boston last April and in the fall marathon in New York was runner-up. Now back in Boston for another shot, he competes with the usually powerful platoon of his countrymen who constitute most of the elite field.
Whatever happens in his US races this year, Rop will always remember the first one as the sweetest.
After winning Boston, he returned to his Kenyan village a triumphant hero. Aside from the $80,000 winner's check, the villagers honored him with gifts of five sheep and two cows.
The next day, his wife, Lilian, gave birth to a boy, and the Rops didn't take long to come up with a name: Boston.
Now a little more than 2, Boston stayed home in Kenya, where, Rop said, people all over the country will be glued to their tubes (called "screens") for a race that creates nearly as much of a holiday as in Boston.
Running, said Rop, is a way of life in Kenya that may begin when children engage in one of their sports -- chasing rabits for fun and food. Catch the rabbit, he said, and you get to roast it. Perhaps it is only the very elite runners who kick it up a notch and go after an antelope.
"It is very very hard to catch an antelope," said Rop. "They are very fast."
After last year's seventh place in Boston, a finish Rop blames on overtraining, Rop expects to run a better race Monday. He said this year he has shaped his training for the race.
"Boston is a hilly course, and so I trained for hills," he said. "If I train for a flat race, I train differently."
Whether he goes on to run New York in the fall depends on whether he is chosen for his nation's Olympic team for Athens. "If I don't go to the Olympics, for sure I will run New York again. Maybe if I win Boston, I will [be picked] for the Olympics."
Some of his toughest competition will come from 14 of his countrymen in the race, including one of the best, Christopher Cheboiboch who, two years ago, pushed him from the Newton Hills to the finish. Rop nipped Cheboiboch by three seconds, and then beat him again in New York for his second win in a row, making him an instant national hero and road racing phenomenon.
"He had two tough fights," said Bill Rodgers, who ran both races. "Cheboiboch didn't give up, but Rop's time in New York [2:08:07] was a hell of a time."
Rop said he sticks to the same routine, and stays at his job. Usually rising at 5 a.m., Rop runs for 90 minutes, varying the speed, intensity, and the terrain. After a meal of eggs, bread, and tea, he rests for his second workout of the day, then follows with another rest before dinner. He turns in by 10. One of his organizing principles of his approach to running is routine.
"I just want to keep things the same way they were," he said of his rise to stardom in his country's signature sport.
"I keep the same job looking for law and order," he said, though one change in his life has been the six-room house he was able to build for his family.
He likes the Boston course, and knows it well. Rop agrees with most of the other runners that, as tough as Heartbreak Hill may be, "Mile 22 is the killer," referring to the downhill stretch at Boston College just after the hills.
"Boston is special for me because it is the race where I [gained] my fame," Rop said. "Also, the organization is very, very good. It is better organized than New York. And the crowd in Boston, they are with you from the first mile right to the finish. And when you're tired, you hear them shouting and yelling. It helps you keep going."
Some races, Rop has attacked, and tried to take an early lead. He said his approach Monday will be a bit more cautious. "I will not be too aggressive at first but stay with a pack," he said. "Then depending on what some of the others do, I will make my own move."
Rop said he is thankful to sponsor John Hancock, which "invited me back this year even though I did not win last year. That was very good."
Last year, there was no homecoming. There were no sheep. No cows.
"I don't mind," he said. "People expect things now from me. But that's not bad to me."