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BOB RYAN

New rule engenders equal footing

Maybe they should have consulted the people who put together those Guinness commercials.

"Carry six beers at one time? Brilliant!"

In this case . . .

"Let the best women start a half-hour ahead of the men? Brilliant!"

Talk about an idea whose time had come, and come, and come.

"I was pushing for it as far back as 1980," said Billy Squires, who, for lack of a better description, is Boston's Ultimate Running Authority.

So what we had yesterday in the 108th running of the Boston Marathon was the first true women's race. Well, yes, the women have been sanctioned competitors since 1972, but yesterday was the first time the leading women weren't back in the pack somewhere, with commentators having to preface so many of their comments with "I think." This time there was no guesswork, no yeah-buts. We all knew that Catherine Ndereba and Elfenesh Alemu were running 1-2, because the only thing you could see other than these two great runners was an empty roadway (and the obligatory motorcycle police, of course).

Ndereba the Kenyan and Alemu the Ethiopian were exclusive running partners from about the 4-mile mark to the 25-mile mark. Through Ashland and Framingham, through Natick and Wellesley, through all the Newtons, up Heartbreak Hill and down, past Boston College and Cleveland Circle and Coolidge Corner and right into Kenmore Square, the two gallant women ran stride-for-stride. It looked like a real race, because it was a real race, not a race stuffed inside a race, the way it's been in Boston for 31 years. It was a race with a proper dignity.

OK, I'll say it. At long last, the women had A Race of Their Own.

"Oh yes, I prefer the women-only start," said Ndereba, who broke away from Alemu as soon as they hit Kenmore Square to win by 16 seconds in 2:24:27. "It was so great. We had all the room and all the road."

In the end, Ndereba's superiority was overwhelming. All during that long run with Alemu, she looked to be the fresher runner. Whereas the Ethiopian often looked to be laboring in the heat, Ndereba had the jaunty stride of someone out for a morning jog. That may have been true for the first 25 miles, but she would wind up paying the price for her blistering finishing kick. After crossing the finish line, she quickly fell to her knees, the victim of major cramping in her calves.

"I felt dead," she said, when what she probably meant to say was that she wished she were dead.

"That was the worst pain," she said. "I could not be standing."

This from a woman who collapsed directly into a wheelchair after completing her first Boston five years ago (a sixth-place finish).

"This was much tougher," she said. "In 1999, I didn't have enough training. This time, it's not like I didn't do enough training. The heat was just too tough. I knew I'd have to run a smart race."

The two questions in the race were known to one and all. 1. When would Ndereba make her big move? 2. Would Alemu be capable of any significant response?

The answers were: 1. Kenmore Square and 2. Nope.

Once Ndereba downshifted, the race was o-v-e-r. The final margin was staggering, considering that the two had been like the Hilton Sisters for 21 miles. But Ndereba, it turns out, is strictly from the Yogi Berra school. To her, you play nine innings, not 8 2/3.

"When you are out there," she said, "you cannot consider yourself a victor until you cross the finish line and break the tape."

For 25 miles, we were hoping for the female equivalent of the famed Alberto Salazar-Dick Beardsley duel in 1982. But Ndereba wouldn't allow it. Regardless, it had been a real race, and it amply demonstrated the wisdom of the decision to separate the sexes at the start.

"That was a great day," said Joan Benoit Samuelson, the greatest of all American female long-distance runners. "With the new start, the women were able to put on a show. That was a great race. We've proven our abilities. I think, relatively speaking, that the women's times were more impressive than the men's."

If any woman ever deserved this kind of showcase, of course, it was Joan Benoit Samuelson. Ever the lady, however, she refused to indulge in self-pity.

"Yes, it would have been nice to have a separate start," she conceded (after much prodding). "But I felt privileged to run in the race."

Truth be told, the opinion that a separate start for the elite women was a good thing wasn't unanimous.

"I preferred to be with the men," said Alemu. "Then I would not have been alone."

Ms. Alemu had a health issue, you see. She ran a significant portion of the race with a pain in her back that she attributed to the tailwind. Her reasoning, apparently, was that had she been in the normal pack she would have been somewhat sheltered, and thus not subjected to the ravages of this wind. She agreed that the heat was a problem, but she insisted that, for her, the wind was a bigger problem.

Hey, it's her body.

Third-place finisher Olivera Jevtic was all in favor of the new format. "Yes," she said, "I prefer to run with the women."

It's no longer an issue. Common sense has prevailed. The women truly have their own race. Brilliant!

And consider this: If we had this start in 1980? No Rosie Ruiz.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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