What is striking about Kenya's Boston Marathon runners is that they progress here at a sprinter's pace. One year they acknowledge before the race that it's their first Boston run -- or first marathon -- and their inexperience shows; they often botch a solid effort with miscalculations. The next year, they're first to the finish line.
Imagine if all second tries returned such high yield. Then we'd all know how it must feel to be Nairobi's Catherine Ndereba, who finished her 1999 Boston -- her first marathon -- in sixth place before collapsing into a wheelchair from exhaustion only to come back and win in 2000 and 2001.
Ndereba's debacle in 1999 spurned a new millennium of dominance that has made her the undisputed queen of the 26 miler, earned her the moniker "Catherine the Great," and established her as the standard for women's long distance running.
"I feel established like the way you feel when you have a baby, from the infant age up to the age when you crawl and then you stand," said Ndereba, who is scheduled to run in her fifth Boston Marathon Monday. "That is how my marathons in Boston have been. Now my baby is walking so fast, it's going through the terrible twos, I cannot stop for a minute."
She finished second in Boston to countrywoman Margaret Okayo in 2002 then skipped last year to run in the London Marathon.
She finished second in London, 4 minutes 30 seconds behind Great Britain's Paula Radcliffe, who recorded a world-record time of 2 hours 15 minutes 25 seconds. It was Ndereba's first run in London, an event annually held around the same time as the Boston Marathon (this year's race is Sunday), forcing some of the world's best runners to choose between the two.
Ndereba had heard much about the London Marathon and curiosity led her to give it a try.
This year, she decided to come back to her "baby."
"The London Marathon was fine and good to me because I wanted to discover how the course is," she said. "I was told it was a flat course. Plus, it is good to have a taste of each and everything.
"But since I like Boston very much, I decided to come back. I like [sponsor] John Hancock and their hospitality. People here are very friendly. This was my first marathon; I now have a lot of friends in Boston, and I met them in the Boston Marathon."
Prior to running Boston, Ndereba had established herself as a world-class short-to-middle-distance runner; in 1996, she burst onto the running scene and won 13 of the 18 events she entered and was named Road Runner of the Year by Runner's World magazine and Road Racer of the Year by Running Times.
Married to Anthony Maina, with whom she trains, Ndereba took off from racing in 1997 to give birth to her daughter Jane. Then she came back in 1998 to win the runner of the year honors in both publications again.
Although she struggled in her first Boston run, Ndereba was introduced to a running genre far more grueling than the short-to-middle distance events she had mastered (she ran the world's fastest times at 5 kilometers, 12K, 15K, and 10 miles in 1999). But mastering the event has more than boosted her international reputation.
It is no wonder she has a mother's love for Boston. Since that fateful run in 1999, Ndereba has run in 10 marathons, winning five, and has been runner-up in the other five.
In other words, the only time she finished out of the top five was in her debut.
In one of her most impressive accomplishments, Ndereba captured the Chicago Marathon in 2001with a world-record time of 2:18:47, surpassing the week-old record of Japan's Naoko Takahashi (2:19:46) set in Berlin. That makes Ndereba the second-fastest woman in history, behind Radcliffe.
Moreover, last year she became the first Kenyan, man or woman, to win a marathon gold medal at the World Championships (2:23:55, a championship record), and qualified for the 2004 Olympic marathon team.
"I have been dying to represent my country in any world event," said Ndereba. "I haven't been able to. Last year was my first time to win a gold medal and the first time to represent my country." She said she failed to earn the Olympic spot on the national team after attempting in 1996 and 2000.
"It was a longtime dream that was blossoming," she added. "I thank God for that."
Ndereba said she has no game plan for running marathons, relying only on steadfast preparation and her faith. "I don't have any strategy or any idea how to face it. I always have to keep my trust in God. He will direct me always. I keep in Him first and He will make everything come true.
"My preparation is going well. I have been doing my training as I always do, and my four months of training has been going well."
Ndereba comes to Boston on the heels of finishing second to fellow Kenyan Isabella Ochichi in the Cherry Blossom 10-Mile Road Race in Washington April 4.
Ndereba takes pride in how she has inspired other women runners in Kenya, but she added, "It's not like it is for the men. It won't be for some years to come. Maybe it will be. I don't think we had a lot of runners coming up before I ran the marathon. When I started only a few could run a marathon. Now, there are more than 10."