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Negussie ready to try to fend off Kenyans again

It's not as if an Ethiopian guy hadn't run away from a Kenyan or two on a city street before. Hailu Negussie's countrymen have been pounding the pavement for a while. Abebe Bikila ran barefoot through Rome in 1960 when he became the first black African to win the Olympic marathon, then ran roughshod through Tokyo four years later. Mamo Wolde breezed home in Mexico City's rare air in 1968, and Gezahegne Abera and Tesfaye Tola squeezed Kenya's Eric Wainaina into a Sydney sandwich in 2000.

So Negussie didn't think it was stop-the-presses stuff last year when he parted company with a quintet of Kenyans on Heartbreak Hill and went on to win the Boston Marathon by 36 seconds.

''The Ethiopian athletes have achieved a lot of wins with the Kenyans," Negussie said through interpreter Elias Kebede. ''Not only Boston, but so many other races. What happened with me sprinting and finishing first, it had happened several other times, too."

The trick for Negussie tomorrow will be to do it twice in a row, which no man has managed at Boston since Kenya's Cosmas Ndeti won his third straight in 1995. That's what brought him back to face a field of challengers that includes the previous two champions in Timothy Cherigat and Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot, plus Tola, last year's runner-up Wilson Onsare, and the best American group in years, led by Olympians Meb Keflezighi and Alan Culpepper.

''I won Boston, so I am tempted to defend the title," says the 26-year-old Negussie, who'll be up against half a dozen runners with personal bests faster than his 2:08:16. ''That is why I am here."

Last year, he was one contender in a lead pack that was full of them. This time, though, Negussie will be at the head of the line in Hopkinton with the number 1 on the front of his jersey and a big bull's-eye on the back.

''I know that all eyes could me on me," he acknowledges. ''I could be the center of attention. But I have done my training and I'll do whatever I have to do, whether I am spotted or not."

What Negussie has learned since last April is what more than 100 others have learned before him. Wearing the laurel wreath here is a transforming experience. ''Winning Boston has changed my life in so many ways," says Negussie, the only Ethiopian champion here besides 1989 victor Abebe Mekonnen.

His victory brought him enhanced stature, a fatter bank account, and more big-race invitations. But it also brought more attention and a fair amount of head-scratching when Negussie finished 31st at last summer's World Championships in Helsinki and dropped out in New York. A bruised right heel, which sabotaged his training, was the reason, but Negussie isn't offering explanatory footnotes.

''I am not very happy with my performances after Boston," he says. ''People have been saying that they are surprised, and I am not feeling good about those results. I hope to change that here."

Most of the time, when Negussie finishes a marathon, he places in the top five. Before he won here, he'd prevailed twice at Hofu, Japan, and once in Xiamen, China, setting course records that still stand. But when Negussie stepped up in class two years ago, he received a couple of harsh hot-weather tutorials, dropping out of the Olympic marathon in Athens and placing a distant fifth here in 2:17:30.

''My first time I came to Boston, I saw how difficult it is," says Negussie, who was out of contention that day before the Newton hills. ''When I went back to Ethiopia, the course was always in my mind. I thought about what kind of training I had to do, what sort of challenge this was. So I had the advantage of seeing the course first and preparing for the next time."

Preparing meant running the hills outside of Addis Ababa with his Mugar Cement Factory clubmates, which include Abera and Kenenisa Bekele, the world 10,000-meter champion. To beat the Kenyans, the planet's high-altitude kings, the Ethiopians have trained like their neighbors.

''Over recent years, we have a highly rigorous and disciplined system," Negussie says. ''That is why we are catching up to the Kenyans."

So when he returned for another go at Boston last year, he was ready for a full-out assault on the Cherigats and Cheruiyots and Cheronos. He hung with the Kenyans all the way through the hills, a bit puzzled why they weren't trying to shake him, as they'd done before.

''They could have done so many things, but maybe they didn't expect that I could do this," says Negussie, who put the hammer down at Heartbreak and dismissed everybody but Cheruiyot, whom he took care of with a 4:47 mile going past the ''Cemetery of Lost Hope."

The Kenyans won't be caught overlooking him tomorrow, especially since Negussie will be wearing the bright blue singlet now given to the defending champion.

Negussie could have opted for London's speedway this time and let countrymen Tola and Deriba Merga, both Boston rookies, carry the Ethiopian colors here. But the challenge of a reprise lured him back.

''Boston is one of the world's premier marathons," he says. ''Winning it is a big thing."

Success here makes failure elsewhere more notable, as Negussie since has learned. He wasn't considered just another contender last year in Helsinki or in New York, nor will he be here tomorrow. If last year was for recognition, this year may be for redemption.

''I will try my best to humbly bring back my name, hopefully with God's will," Hailu Negussie vows. ''If this does not work, I will still try my best."

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