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Conditions kept runners in check

Catherine Ndereba had two things in mind when she arrived here last week: win her third Boston Marathon and set the women's course record. "But when I heard people saying it was going to be hot, I thought, it is not a good day for the course record," the world champion and Olympic favorite was saying yesterday morning. "If I do that, I will be very stupid."

Ndereba has been here five times now ("Boston is like my second home") and she has learned to take whatever the day gives. "Being a runner, we expect everything," she said. "It is not like every day can go smoothly."

Not in this town and certainly not in early spring. So when Monday came up hot and windless, Ndereba forgot about chasing Margaret Okayo's 2:20:43 and focused on beating Elfenesh Alemu. Then Timothy Cherigat, her fellow Kenyan, ran exactly the smart yet bold race he needed to win in the men's division. When was the last time a 2:10:37 effort was described as extraordinary? Only when it's July in April.

It's not so much the Calvinist topography, meant to humble and punish, that distinguishes the Boston Marathon from all others. It's the race-day weather, which changes from year to year, sometimes from hour to hour. It was 85 this year, 70 last year, 53 the year before amid a heavy mist. In 1970, there was a chill rain throughout. In 1939, the combination of a northeaster and a partial solar eclipse turned the skies dark over Hopkinton. No sunshine patriots need apply.

"Look, the race is run on Patriots Day," said David D'Alessandro, chief executive of John Hancock Financial Services, whose firm is the only marathon sponsor in the world that had a built-in weather forecast atop its original offices. "It could snow. If it snows, suck it up and run the race."

This year's 18,000 pilgrims wouldn't have minded a few frosty flakes dropping on the Newton hills or even a spritz of sleet. The mercury never came near 100 degrees, as it did in 1976. But the afternoon never cooled, not for the full 26.2 miles.

"In 1976, we called it the "Run for the Hoses,' " said race director Dave McGillivray. "Yesterday, it was the `Run to Finish.' "

By the time the last of the stragglers had limped into Copley Square, more than 2,000 participants had been treated by medical staffers during or after the race and 160 had been taken by ambulance to hospitals, where at least 10 were kept overnight.

Yet a remarkable 93 percent of the second-largest field in race history had made it to the finish by the time the clock was turned off at 6:20 p.m. Sensible pacing and enough water to fill Lake Cochituate were one reason. But so, race officials reckoned, was familiarity with the course.

Thousands of runners run this race every year and hundreds train on it so regularly that they have the potholes numbered. "That's why Bill Rodgers was so successful on this course," said McGillivray. "He knew it."

That was why Cherigat found that the third time was the charm. In his 2001 debut, he finished 10th. Last year, when victor Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot went into overdrive coming off Heartbreak Hill, Cherigat blindly went with him -- and ended up fourth.

This time, Cherigat trained specifically for Boston and its hills, and when he made his move, going up Heartbreak with a water bottle in each fist, he knew he was a winner.

"I have mastered the course," Cherigat said yesterday. "I know when to accelerate now, when to reduce, when to maintain the pace. Being here frequently helped me yesterday a lot."

John "The Elder" Kelley, who ran the race 61 times, didn't finish it until his third attempt and said that it took him 10 years to learn how to run it.

"You need to be focused on your next move," said Cherigat. "There is a hill ahead of me. If I make a move now, how will it affect me?"

This is not a Chicago drag strip, a Dutch pancake. Boston is a Wild Mouse of a course, all ascent and descent, essentially unchanged since 1897. What changes, maddeningly at times, are the conditions.

"It is a total challenge for the marathoner," said Ndereba, who literally was brought to her knees at the finish Monday by the 1-2 punch of hills and heat.

There is only one other course like this one, and it's the original in Greece. That's Ndereba's next challenge in August, as she tries to become the only runner besides Rosa Mota to win at Boston and Olympus in the same year.

"Boston is like pre-Athens," Catherine the Great said. "That's how I consider it."

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