Catherine Ndereba closed Elfenesh Alemu's 30-yard lead at the 15-mile mark in yesterday's Boston Marathon, and for the next 10 miles, the two leaders ran together. At times Ndereba was a step ahead, then it was Alemu. They went from each other's shadow to running side by side, so close you could scarcely slip a gnat between them.
It was a two-woman race to the finish, with the nearest competitors virtually a ZIP code away. But over the last mile, Ndereba distanced herself from the only person who could deny her a third Boston triumph.
The Kenyan overcame sweltering heat and cramping to mount a lead of more than 50 yards down the stretch and triumphed yesterday in 2 hours 24 minutes 27 seconds. Ethiopia's Alemu, who said the heat and tailwind contributed to severe back pain that hampered her down the stretch, finished second in 2:24:43.
In third place was Olivera Jevtic of Serbia and Montenegro, who ran 2:27:34 in her marathon debut after running second to Alemu over the first 8 miles.
Ndereba has now finished no worse than second in four of her five Boston Marathons. After a sixth-place finish in her 1999 debut, she won in 2000 and 2001 and finished second in 2002. (Last year, she elected to run the London Marathon instead.)
Because of the conditions, said Ndereba, yesterday was one of her most satisfying wins yet.
"The heat was so tough I don't even have words to say," said Ndereba. "I want to thank God because he has taken great care of me when I was out there in this extreme heat." Ndereba is becoming known for compelling finishes here. In 2000, she pulled away from three-time defending champion Fatuma Roba in the final mile and prevailed over surging runner-up Irina Bogacheva by 16 seconds.
In 2002, she battled much of the race with countrywoman Margaret Okayo before finishing in second place, 29 seconds behind.
"The race this year, in comparison to 2000, it was close, but this race was much tougher, because of the weather," said Ndereba. "In 2000 we were comfortable doing it. In this one, we were fighting with the weather. As you could see, I was struggling over the last few kilometers because of the cramps."
Meanwhile, Alemu's back problems brought back memories of 2002, when knee problems hampered her performance here, even though she finished third.
"I believe this is more frustrating than the previous race," said Alemu. "I could have won the race this time."
Alemu was the aggressor at the beginning of the race, as she and Jevtic ran in front and Poland's Malgorzata Sobanska (seventh, 2:32:23) gave chase. After 27 minutes, Ndereba had moved into third place but was still 10 yards behind Alemu and Jevtic.
"The pace was slow and I made a decision to go out," said Alemu. "That's why I made my move."
By the 43:30 mark, Alemu was about 5 feet ahead of Jevtic and her lead over Ndereba was about 30 yards and growing.
During the eighth mile, the race changed dramatically. Jevtic faded to about 15 yards behind Alemu, and at 50:11 she was overtaken by Ndereba for second place. Ndereba closed within 6 seconds of Alemu, around the same time the TV truck blew a left front tire (though it continued through the end of the race).
Ndereba and Alemu darted back and forth along the solid yellow line on Route 135 as the race reached Wellesley College with Alemu in front by about 2 yards. Then 2 feet.
At Mile 15, the two were side by side.
"From the start, she had been leading and I was just pacing myself," said Ndereba. "I had the [split] times I really wanted to run from start to finish, and I could not go as fast as anyone else was going, so by the time I got her, that's how my pace was going."
At 1:22:31, Alemu was out in front, with Ndereba over her shoulder. At 1:24:34, they were neck and neck again. At 1:25:44, Ndereba took a one-step lead. They were side by side again at 1:29:30 as they crossed the Route 128 overpass. At 1:42:02, Alemu took the lead again. At 1:47:30, they were side by side again.
At one point on Commonwealth Avenue, Alemu ran underneath a Kenyan flag being hoisted by a fan, and Ndereba ran under a step later.
Running with just one other person, said Ndereba, "was encouraging, because when you're out there running by yourself, you feel as if you're out there alone. But when you see other competitors, you enjoy it."
Then Ndereba made her move, and by the time she reached Boylston Street, she had a 50-yard lead. Alemu couldn't give chase.
"I don't think she sped up, but I had a pain in my back and I think I was slowing down," said Alemu.
Ndereba was thoroughly drained afterward, but she had bolstered her status as the world's premier female marathoner.
Said Jevtic, "Considering the weather conditions, it was a very fast time."