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FIRST AMERICAN MAN

Culpepper climbs to 4th

People have long sought sanity and solitude amid the clear skies and thin air of the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. Alan Culpepper used the location to prepare for the waxing and waning of the course, the din of the crowd, and the heat and humidity of the Boston Marathon.

Whatever training program Culpepper followed near his Lafayette, Colo., home, it worked nearly as well as any devised in the Rift Valley.

"Fortunately, I did a lot of downhill running, and my wife nudged me to do even more," said Culpepper, who was the top American finisher yesterday, placing fourth in 2 hours 13 minutes 39 seconds. "I was told numerous times that the downhills sneak up on you and that was the most difficult part of the race. I did specific workouts of upwards of 10 miles of undulating hills with a net downhill at Magnolia Road in Boulder. There are a lot of ups and downs and you are at 8,000 feet or more.

"Still, the combination of hills with the weather made it difficult. If it were 10 degrees cooler, I would have managed the hills better, but the wind was cooling us, tricking us into thinking we were not sweating as much as we were. It was a bad combination."

Culpepper was the best US finisher at Boston since Dave Gordon's fourth place (2:13:30) in 1987 and had the best US time since Keith Dowling (2:13:28) in 2002. With Peter Gilmore (2:17:32) finishing 10th, this was the first time two US runners finished in the top 10 since 1993, when Mark Plaatjes was sixth and Keith Brantly ninth.

Though Culpepper appeared to finish strong, he insisted he was fading, buoyed only by the crowd's support and his persistence.

"Honestly, I was just trying to maintain for the last 10 miles," Culpepper said. "I was happy just to keep contact [with the lead group]. As soon as I got a little bit close, they picked up the pace again.

"I felt good going uphill and I actually caught a couple of guys going up. But I was just trying to hang on and pick guys off, whether it was a nobody or whoever."

Though Culpepper might have been expecting to hold off on his final sprint near the 25-kilometer mark, that is precisely when he started gaining on the leaders. Between the 30- and 40-kilometer marks, he passed Benjamin Kipchumba, Timothy Cherigat, and Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot of Kenya and Mohamed Ouaadi of France.

"I couldn't tell what prompted it," Culpepper said of the lead pack's breakaway. "I think last year's champion [Cherigat] moved to the front and as soon as someone prominent moved to the front, that injected a little bit of pace into it. I expected it to happen a mile later.

"I was happy I could make the transition in pace because it's hard to do after you become used to a certain effort level. It can be a little awkward, and then you immediately have a steep downhill. That is the thing about this course: As soon as you get into a rhythm, there is a water stop, guys jetting from one side to the other to grab water, and you can never get completely comfortable."

This was Culpepper's fourth marathon, an indication that there could be better times ahead. He had competed in one marathon before last year's Olympic Trials, then finished 12th in Athens. The finish of Culpepper, Gilmore, and 11th-place Ryan Shay symbolizes the improvement by US marathoners.

"We now have the ability and the talent," Culpepper said. "It's a continuing process of guys stepping it up and running competitively in bigger races. It's a long time coming and it's a natural progression.

"To win one of these races is very difficult. It takes a lot of stuff coming together. That's why you see guys who won it before, it's hard for them to win again. It is a different sport than it was 20 or 30 years ago."

But American runners seem as likely to win the Boston Marathon as Englishmen the London Marathon, Japanese the Nagano Marathon, and Italians the Torino Marathon. All were held within a 24-hour period, and all were marked by a strong East African presence. A domestic marathoner was victorious only in Turin, though Africans filled five of the top eight places.

There is a long way to go before the US can supply several contemporary marathons with top-level talent, even if there is an American winner in Boston.

"I don't think it would be as potentially enormous as it would have been a long time ago," Culpepper said of the affect of a US winner. "We are already in a running mode. More people are doing our sport and they are excited about it -- just go out to Hopkinton, it's amazing.

"It's a progression. There is a lot more awareness that this is a profession, that it is a sport that is out there that is an option for the youth of America."

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