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Fame not in his fortunes

Cheruiyot didn't take his title and run with it

He thought that his life would change after he broke the tape in Copley Square last year. Isn't that what happens to the man who wins the world's oldest continuous marathon? Wouldn't Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot's name go up alongside Ibrahim Hussein's and Cosmas Ndeti's and Moses Tanui's and the rest of the Kenyans who'd won at Boston? "There is no change," reports Cheruiyot, who returns to defend his title at tomorrow's 108th race. He's $80,000 richer, of course, his payoff for leading four of his countrymen to the finish line. And he's famous back home, but with a small "f."

His village in the Nandi District gave him a champion's welcome, he says, but not the government, which long since has become accustomed to its runners coming home from the Hub with the laurel wreath. And when the national federation named its Olympic marathon team last month, Cheruiyot's name was absent, even as a reserve.

"At first, I was hoping to go," he says, "but they told me I was not on the list."

Nothing personal. It was merely a question of time and depth. The Kenyans have several dozen world-class marathoners, including two (world record-holder Paul Tergat and Sammy Korir) who broke 2:05 last year and another Cheruiyot (Willy) who won at Prague. One victory on one day in Boston, in the 57th-fastest time (2:10:11) in race history, wasn't going to earn a ticket to Athens.

"I was not named," Cheruiyot says with a smile and a shrug. "But I can do my own things. I am still young."

When Cheruiyot won last year at 24, he was the youngest victor since Ndeti in 1994. He was merely one face in a lead pack of fleet Kenyans then, bumping elbows with defending champion Rodgers Rop, Christopher Cheboiboch, Martin Lel, Timothy Cherigat, and Benjamin Kosgei Kimutai.

Then, going up Heartbreak Hill, the last of the Newton trimount, Cheruiyot decided to bust a move, crank up what he felt was a dawdling pace on a warm afternoon and shake a few of his mates loose. He threw in one surge going up, then another coming down, and ran alone from Cleveland Circle to the end, looking over his shoulder and wondering why nobody was giving chase.

Cheruiyot's victory, by a comfortable 24 seconds over Kimutai, was his real global breakthrough.

"I was known because I won Milan," he said then. "This makes my name bigger."

For a few months, anyway. In September, Tergat (2:04:55) and Korir (2:04:56) shocked the world in Berlin. A fortnight later, Evans Rutto clocked a 2:05:50 in Chicago. William Kipsang hung up a course-record 2:06:39 in Amsterdam. Then Lel won New York, beating Rop by 41 seconds. Cheruiyot's wreath now was one among many.

By then, Cheruiyot was just coming off the disabled list and getting back into the game. After Boston, he'd won the Peachtree 10K in Atlanta, but a lower-leg injury in training kept him off the roads for three months and out of New York, where he'd hoped to join Rop among the ranks of those who'd won both in the same year.

"The time was too close," he says.

His next 26-mile outing wasn't until the end of November, when Cheruiyot returned to Milan (where he'd won in a photo finish in 2002) and finished third by two minutes behind unheralded countrymen John Birgen and Philip Tarus. Any chance he had at Olympus vanished.

So Tergat, Korir, and Eric Wainaina will toe the line in Athens, with Rop and Lel the alternates. Not that Cheruiyot is complaining. He's still a relative marathon rookie; tomorrow's will be only his fourth.

His talent, so far at least, has been for shorter stuff: 10Ks, cross-country races, and half-marathons (he was third behind Rop and Lel in Lisbon last month).

"For me to be put on the team, I lose other races," he says. "When you have been named, you are not supposed to run other races."

Had Cheruiyot made the team, he might not be here. Now he has a chance to do what no man has done since Ndeti won his third straight Boston in 1995: repeat as champion.

Since Bill Rodgers pulled off his three-peat in 1980, only three champions -- Geoff Smith (1984-85), Hussein (1991-92), and Ndeti (1993-94-95) -- have kept their crowns. Rop, who won two years ago, finished seventh last year, more than six minutes off the pace.

"You are not comfortable because you are under pressure, thinking that everyone is watching you," says Rop, who'll be one of the top challengers again tomorrow. "You are under tension."

If there's a bull's-eye on Cheruiyot's back, he's not worrying about it.

"I am very comfortable running Boston," he says. "No problem. I came to run the course for myself."

Most of his challengers -- Kimutai, Rop, Lel, Cherigat -- are the same guys Cheruiyot handled last year when he'd never seen the course before. Just in case he'd forgotten where the potholes were, he signed up for the prerace tour again. The thermometer, he insists, won't matter.

"I like all kinds of weather," Cheruiyot says. "No matter heat, no matter humidity. Hot, warm, or cold."

The man has learned to take what the day brings. Last year the temperature, forecast for 60, climbed to 70. An unexpected headwind kicked in. When leader Vincent Kipsos, who had the top seed time, dropped out just after the midway point, it was anybody's race. Why not Cheruiyot's? "OK, I will win this," he said he told himself even before the pack hit the hills.

Will he win tomorrow? "The race will be difficult," Cheruiyot concedes. Rop and Lel are in top form and highly motivated. If Tergat, who pulled out of today's London Marathon with a strained calf, can't get fit in time for Athens, one of them will get the call. In the chase, too, is Ethiopia's Hailu Negussie (2:08:16) and Italy's Daniele Caimmi, who dead-heated with Cheruiyot in Milan two years ago.

If he repeats, he says, "It would be great for me." If not, there's next year and more after that.

"I will run as long as I am able to," says the man with the No. 1 bib. "Until my legs say: Stop."

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