Jogging and spitting. That's what runners call it when prudence gets the better of bravado and they bide their time in a pack, watching and waiting and measuring one another like nervous cats. Everyone expected this year's Boston Marathon to resemble the mad dashes of recent years, in which Kenyans set off at a pace more suited to running a mile than a marathon. What they got instead was a lot of jogging and spitting and one of the most dramatic finishes in the race's 97-year history.
The reason for caution was the temperature. At noon on Monday, when the crack of the starter's pistol sent 8,925 runners spinning down the winding roads of Hopkinton, the temperature stood at 60°. By the finish it had climbed to 73°. Those were perfect conditions for the rapturous throngs that lined the route, carousing and barbecuing and shouting themselves hoarse. But it was deadly weather for the marathoners, which is why the lead pack of nearly 40 runners dawdled through the first five miles in 24:46.
To no one's surprise, that pack contained nine Kenyans. The Kenyans are to distance running what the Yankees once were to baseball: so infuriatingly good that even aspiring to beat them seems to be an act of fatuous optimism. Kenyans claimed all three steeplechase medals at the 1992 Olympics, they dominate the U.S. road-racing circuit, and at the World Cross Country Championships last month in Amorebieta, Spain, they swept the first five places. Break up the Kenyans!
The women's race in Boston was virtually a solo affair for defending champion Olga Markova of Russia, and she savored each step with a sense of sweet vindication. Markova, 24, does most of her training in the U.S. these days, dividing her time between such running hotbeds as Gainesville, Fla., and Albuquerque. Although her independent spirit has improved her running, it seems to have angered some members of her federation.
Last year Markova easily defeated a strong field in Boston, winning in 2:23:43, a Russian national record that held up as the fastest women's time in the world for '92. Markova assumed that her performance would earn her one of the three marathon berths on the Unified Team's Olympic squad. She assumed wrong. The Unified Team's selection committee ignored Markova because she had refused to enter the Los Angeles Marathon, which the federation had designated as its Olympic qualifying event. In Barcelona one of Markova's countrywomen, Valentina Egorova, won the gold.
On Monday, Markova ran like a clock, ticking off mile after mile within seconds of her 5:25 pace. Egorova gamely followed for 12 miles but then quickly faded before dropping out after 22 miles. Markova sailed home blithely, covering the final mile in 5:41. Her time was 2:25:27, far better than that of Kim Jones of Spokane, who closed strongly to finish second, in 2:30. "Today the race was tactical," said Markova. "I was looking around."
Victory brought her something much dearer than the $65,000 winner's purse. Because the Russians used Boston to pick their team for the world championships in Stuttgart in August, she will finally get her shot at a championship medal.
The men's race, by contrast, was a complicated affair. A mob of 18 runners passed the half marathon in 1:05:12, all of them seemingly content to jog and spit. But in the 16th mile, where the course takes a final plunge before climbing the series of hills that crests at Heartbreak Hill, the pack abruptly splintered. The instigator was a 26-year-old librarian from Namibia, Lucketz Swartbooi, who, remarkably, has been a marathoner for all of two years. A soccer player as a boy, Swartbooi entered his first marathon on a lark in April 1991. Without one step of training, he clocked 2:32. Buoyed by that effort, he decided to train, and last October he ran a 2:11:23.
Swartbooi hammered the 16th mile in 4:39. Two miles later only Kim Jae-Yong of Korea was with him. As the two of them began their climb through the grinding hills of Newton, they were a study in contrasts, the stocky Korean shadowing the spindly Namibian. When Swartbooi opened 20 yards on Kim at the 22nd mile, he looked to be a certain winner.
Closing fast, however, was the tiny figure of Cosmas N'Deti. N'Deti was almost as mysterious a figure as Swartbooi. A born-again Christian, N'Deti ran with the words I AM THE WAY AND THE LIFE written on his shoes. A 23-year-old Kenyan, he was running only his second marathon. His first had come in December, when he had accompanied a friend, Benson Masya, to the Honolulu Marathon. The pair had run together until the last mile, when Masya edged ahead, winning by nine seconds. Their success in Honolulu persuaded Masya and N'Deti to train for Boston.
On Monday, N'Deti stuck faithfully to his friend's side for 18 miles, at which point Masya looked up and saw that the leaders were 200 yards ahead. "Those people are going to leave us," he told N'Deti. "You must start following them."
N'Deti did better than that. He caught the stunned Kim at the 24th mile, and Swartbooi moments later. Shoulder to shoulder, N'Deti and Swartbooi ran down Beacon Street, past crowds that stood five and 10 deep. N'Deti calmly looked at the tired man on his right. When Swartbooi did not return his glance, N'Deti was gone. Had Swartbooi possessed either the will or the energy to lift his head at this, point, he might have read the Citgo sign high on a nearby rooftop as a cruel omen concerning his chances of victory: SEE IT GO. N'Deti swung right onto Hereford Street and then left for the final straightaway, down Boylston Street.
But the drama wasn't over. Around the corner soon came Kim. And then Swartbooi. All three men charged home, with 100 yards separating the first from the third. N'Deti seemed to wander dangerously to his left, as if dizzy. Kim struggled gamely down the center of the street, as did Swartbooi not far behind, but they simply had too much ground to make up.
N'Deti finished with both arms raised in triumph. His time was 2:09:33, 10 seconds ahead of Kim and 24 in front of Swartbooi. Never before had three runners followed one another in such quick succession down Boylston. N'Deti covered the final 10K in 29:40, an astonishing feat on so hot a day. That pace surprised everyone but the new champion, who shrugged off all questions about the heat.
"The climate to me was very nice," said N'Deti with the inevitable buoyancy of a winner. "I spent the last two weeks training in Kenya. I was climbing mountains in Kenya. I was just feeling nice when I was climbing the hills there."
Almost as nice as he felt after a day of jogging and spitting in Boston.