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Hot to trot

Marathon forecast creates Athens in April

With another "Run for the Hoses" predicted for today's 108th Boston Marathon -- temperatures are expected to be in the mid-80s -- the Boston Athletic Association is advising the 20,000-plus starters to "run safely and smartly." Meaning, they should pace themselves sensibly and rehydrate frequently.

Besides augmented water tables at each mile marker, the cities and towns along the route will provide spray stations to cool off overheated runners. For the strugglers and stragglers, there'll be American Red Cross and medical staffers at each mile, buses along the route to take DNFers back to Boston, and auxiliary treatment and recovery facilities at the Copley Square finish.

While today's temperatures won't equal the 1976 scorcher, when the readings on the course were above 95 degrees for much of the race, it likely will be hottest race day since 1987, when the mercury was in the mid-80s with humidity over 95 percent.

With the hilly course, narrow streets, hot temperature, and an international field, today's race is Athens in April. The Olympic marathon may not be for another four months, but if you're looking for a dress rehearsal, today might do.

"It will be good for us," said Hailu Negussie, who'll become the first Ethiopian champion in 15 years if he can break through the usual pack of Kenyans this afternoon. "It will combine both the heat and the terrain. I think we are lucky."

If the day turns out as forecast, luck may well favor the man and woman who ignore the clock and run a smart tactical race, as victor Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot did last year.

"This race will be a mystery," said Cheruiyot, who's bidding to become the first champion to defend his crown since Cosmas Ndeti in 1995 and the 13th Kenyan male to win in 14 years.

Last year, Cheruiyot led his country's sweep of the first five places. With world champion Catherine Ndereba back in the women's field after a year's absence, the Kenyans could hit the daily double for the third time in five years.

"It would mean a lot to me," says Ndereba, who's hoping to join Portugal's Rosa Mota, Germany's Uta Pippig, and Ethiopia's Fatuma Roba as the only three-time women's champions here. "This was the first marathon that I ever ran and my first victory."

Unlike her previous triumphs here in 2000 and 2001, Ndereba will be able to keep her rivals in sight all the way from Hopkinton to Copley Square, now that the elite women will have a separate start, 29 minutes before the traditional all-comers gun at noon.

"I'm extremely happy," said the 31-year-old mom from Nairobi, who hopes to become the first Kenyan of either gender to win the Olympic gold medal this summer. "We will be able to tell who is there and who is not. And now, you can know the splits, because you have that big clock ahead of you."

Not that the splits will matter on a day that's more likely to produce survivors than victors. Last year, when the thermometer rose unexpectedly to 70, Cheruiyot won in the slowest time (2:10:11) in six years and only the 57th-fastest in race history.

What if it's 15 degrees warmer today? "It'll be the Boston Massacre," said four-time champion Bill Rodgers. At the very least, both the men's and women's races figure to be cautious undertakings until attrition takes its toll.

"The heat will affect the performance of each and every one of us," said Rodgers Rop, the 2002 champion who was seventh last year. "We will not expect better times. I think everyone will be together."

Even on a cooler day, the men's race figured to be a tactical battle among most of last year's contenders -- Cheruiyot, runner-up Benjamin Kosgei Kimutai, Martin Lel, Timothy Cherigat, and Rop -- plus Negussie, who has the third fastest time (2:08:16) in the last two years among the contenders.

Negussie, who has won three of the six marathons he's entered (including the Xiamen Marathon in China last year), is the man most likely to thwart the Kenyans, provided he can keep himself from getting boxed and buffeted.

"I'm not worried about that," said Negussie, who would be the first Ethiopian champion here since Abebe Mekonnen in 1989. "This has happened many times. We are used to it. We are careful, because we are small in numbers."

If anyone figures to beat Ndereba, whose personal best (2:18:47) is more than five minutes faster than anyone else's in the field, it's Negussie's countrywoman Elfenesh Alemu, who shocked Olympic champion Naoko Takahashi in Tokyo last fall. "If I win, it just happens," she said.

The question today will be: At what price? Ndereba and Alemu already have been named to their Olympic teams for Athens. Will they risk a toe-to-toe battle for a laurel wreath today at the potential cost of an Olympic gold medal in August? Check back at 2 p.m.

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