Juma Ikangaa, whose legs seem to account for most of the 5'3" that separate the top of his head from the soles of his feet, looked awesomely relaxed as he whirred across the Pulaski Bridge midway through Sunday's New York City Marathon. The air was cool (52°), the skies were overcast, and it seemed the tiny Tanzanian was bent on taking advantage of those perfect conditions. The only sign that he was clipping along at 4:51 per mile was in his cheeks, which trembled slightly with every stride.
At that pace Ikangaa should not have had much company. But he did. Hanging on for dear life were a dozen runners, the remnants of one of the best marathon fields ever assembled. At the start it had included Gelindo Bordin of Italy, the 1988 Olympic marathon champion, and Belayneh Densimo of Ethiopia, whose 2:06:50 in Rotterdam last year was the fastest marathon ever run. Densimo was still in the pack that was struggling to keep up with Ikangaa, and so was Steve Jones of Wales, last year's winner, but Bordin had fallen some 200 yards behind.
Ikangaa was growing impatient. "I don't like the little surging," he would say later in his measured, precise English. "Surge and stop, surge and stop. That can cause muscle cramps. It is better for someone to surge completely."
That someone turned out to be Jones. When Jones surged down off the bridge, Ikangaa went with him. And when Jones relaxed, Ikangaa pushed on. He covered that mile, the 14th, in 4:34, which pulled him 50 yards clear of Jones and Ken Martin of Santa Fe, N.M. "It was such a dramatic surge, and he was gone so quick," said Martin. "I thought. He's not going to keep it up. He can't."
Sweetly solemn and disarmingly direct, the 32-year-old Ikangaa is full of surprises. It is not unusual for him to turn an interview around 180 degrees. "Why do you ask that?" he will inquire with genuine interest. At a press conference two days before the race, Ikangaa was asked if he thought he would break the course record. "I am mentally fit and technically fit to run on Sunday," he said. "Afterwards, we will know if I have broken the course record."
Ikangaa paused. "What is the course record?"
Until Sunday that was a surprisingly tricky question. Race officials have retained Alberto Salazar's 1981 mark (2:08:13) as the record even though the course Salazar ran was later found to be 120 yards short. But, thankfully, this year's race provided an answer to that and a number of other questions. Some of them were mundane: By how much would Norway's Ingrid Kristiansen win the women's race? Others were more intriguing: Would an American ever go under 2:10 again? In 1988 alone that barrier was broken by three runners from Ethiopia, and two each from Italy, Kenya and Tanzania. No U.S. marathoner had broken 2:10 since Salazar ran 2:09:21 in 1983.
The Kristiansen question was answered quickly. She passed the half-marathon point in 1:09:59 with a lead of almost two minutes, and through 16 miles she was still on pace to break her own world best of 2:21:06. But Kristiansen drank too quickly at a water station and got cramps. "It felt like I was running half an hour after a big meal," she said.
Yet so complete was Kristiansen's dominance that it would have taken a truckload of cakes and pies to make her truly vulnerable. She hit the tape in 2:25:30, missing Allison Roe's eight-year-old course record by one tantalizing second. Kristiansen had to be content with the $26,385 winner's purse and a Mercedes. The $10,000 bonus she would have won for breaking Roe's record went unclaimed, even though Roe's record was set on the same short course as Salazar's.
The great surprise of the women's race was the second-place finish by Kim Jones, a 31-year-old mother of two from Spokane. Jones, who broke 2:30 for the first time while finishing third in Boston this April, was proving herself audacious simply by running in New York; she had won the Twin Cities Marathon in 2:31:42 only four weeks earlier. Jones reached the finish in 2:27:54 to become the fourth-fastest U.S. woman ever.
Ikangaa could take no chances. "I had to get away from those guys," he said. His tactics were dictated by bitter experience. Marathoners have nightmares about sprint finishes, and no one knows their horror better than Ikangaa, who has finished second in three of his last four races by a total of 60 seconds. "You can always correct yourself," said Ikangaa. "The mistake I've been making is not to distribute my strength over the whole course."
To rectify that, Ikangaa, a major in the Tanzanian army, spent the three weeks before the New York race training in, as he put it, "the place known as Alamosa [Colo.]." Though he trimmed his weekly mileage in Alamosa to a mere 100 miles, Ikangaa often runs twice that amount—yes, 200 miles—in the hills around the town of Arusha, near Tanzania's northern border with Kenya, where he works as an instructor, specializing in heavy field artillery.
Until Sunday, Ikangaa claimed, he had never looked behind him in a race. But as he ran the noisy gantlet on First Avenue, he checked over his shoulder again and again. He saw no one coming.
Still, he did not let up. He seemed to flow up and over the final hills in Central Park. Pumping his arms like a sprinter, he hit the tape in 2:08:01, 12 seconds under Salazar's controversial mark.
Moments after crossing the finish, Ikangaa executed four high squat leaps in a display of joy. "It was the greatest race I've run," he said. "It was a personal record, a course record, and I am the second African to win this race."
The first was Ibrahim Hussein, in 1987. Though Hussein is Kenyan, Ikangaa proudly points out that they do have something in common. They, and Densimo, who aggravated a sore ankle and faded to ninth, grew up in the Great Rift Valley, cradle to a disproportionate number of the world's best distance runners. From the time he entered first grade. Ikangaa had to run 4½ miles to school every day, and 4½ miles home. "It is very different from a developed country," Ikangaa said. "In a developed country, whenever a child leaves school, there is always a bus or car or subway waiting to take him home. We did not have that."
The battle behind Ikangaa was stirring. Bordin, who won his Olympic gold with a strong run over the final miles, also came on strong at the end in New York. But despite a rousing charge up the final, quarter-mile hill, Bordin fell two seconds short of overtaking Martin, who finished second in 2:09:38. That may well be the start of a nice comeback both for Martin—whose personal best of 2:11:24 had stood since 1984—and for U.S. marathoning. Said Martin, "What they are all going to say is, If Martin can do it, I can do it."
Ikangaa has a sense of duty that befits a soldier. He is anxious to get home to repay his debt to the Tanzanian army, which, he says, has generously allowed him time to train in the mornings. He takes with him a winner's purse of $26,385, a $10,000 bonus for setting a course record, and a Mercedes. And there, too, Ikangaa sees where duty lies. "I want this car to be used by my mother," he says, "because she was a bit angry the last two years when I did not succeed in winning one. I will say, 'Mom, I have a very good prize for you. Here is the Mercedes-Benz I won.' "