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Running past shadow of despair

Kenyan violence haunted and united champion Cheruiyot, countrymen

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By John Powers
Globe Staff / April 22, 2008

The symbolism was more significant this year than ever. Robert Cheruiyot wearing the laurel wreath, holding the silver victor's trophy, listening to his national anthem in Copley Square.

After Kenya's winter of discontent, disruption, and death, it was important that one of its own runners win the world's most renowned marathon yesterday afternoon, if only to show that one tradition is immutable.

"We are still here," proclaimed the 29-year-old runner from the hilly Nandi District near Uganda, after he'd left behind a pair of panting Moroccans to win his third straight Boston Marathon in a brisk 2 hours 7 minutes 46 seconds to become the first man since Bill Rodgers to claim four titles overall.

Since Ibrahim Hussein won here 20 years ago, his Kenyan countrymen have taken all but four titles, sweeping the top three places five times. But when violence rocked Kenya in the wake of the December elections, the marathoners found themselves swept up in it.

Luke Kibet, the world champion, needed stitches after being hit in the head during a street fight. Wesly Ngetich, who'd won the Grandma's Marathon in Duluth, Minn., last year, was killed by an arrow in January during a tribal dispute.

"It was by mistake he was killed," said Timothy Cherigat, who won Boston in 2004. "But it came as a shock."

Cheruiyot, who had been training in Brazil, returned home for a week, then resumed preparations in Namibia.

"There was a lot of tension," he said. "We had to be careful."

Safety depended upon which tribe you belonged to and where you happened to be. Some runners chose to train outside of Kenya but were fretful.

"My family was fine," said Cheruiyot. "My mother, my father, they were OK. But when you are not there, it is very hard."

Others stayed at their camps and lived from day to day.

"You are asking yourself, 'What is going to happen tomorrow?' " said Christopher Cheboiboch, who trained with Cherigat at the KIMbia Athletics camp in Iten.

Throughout the turmoil, the Kenyan marathoners stayed in touch with each other, as they always do. There are dozens of them among the global elite, and they congregate at the top races.

"We are members of different tribes," said Cherigat, "but when we run shoulder to shoulder as a family of athletes, we are one."

Once the violence subsided, the Kenyans began peaking for the three major spring marathons they traditionally dominate. Martin Lel won at London and William Kipsang at Rotterdam, both April 13. But Boston is the one that resonates back home. If he won here for a fourth time, Cheruiyot had observed Friday, "I will be a great man in Kenya."

In his previous victories here, Cheruiyot had been content to settle into the lead pack and wait until the grinding Newton hills to make his move. This time, he moved quickly to the front, his red singlet with its defending champion's No. 1 dominating the center of the TV screen.

By the firehouse turn heading up Commonwealth Avenue, the leaders were down to four: Cheruiyot, countryman James Kwambai, Morocco's Abderrahime Bouramdane and Ethiopia's Kasime Adillo. Cheruiyot knew he could handle Kwambai, whom he ran away from last year. He wasn't sure about the others.

"Two guys and I don't know them," Cheruiyot said.

So instead of waiting until Heartbreak Hill, his favorite stalking ground, he made his break going up the first incline and abruptly opened a 100-yard gap.

"For me, it was better to kill them before," Cheruiyot said. "When the lion wants meat, he has to kill."

Cheruiyot wanted this victory badly. No man since countryman Cosmas Ndeti in 1995 had won three in a row in Boston. No man had won four total since Rodgers between 1975-80.

"When I come to America, everyone will know I have won four times," Cheruiyot said. "I am in the book with Bill Rodgers."

There was no doubt about that once Cheruiyot came loping onto Beacon Street for the final 4 miles. He never glanced over his shoulder to see where his pursuers might be.

"When I decide to move," he said, "I don't look back."

But he did check his wristwatch, to gauge his chances of breaking the course record of 2:07:14, which he set two years ago. If Cheruiyot could run a 2:06 on a hilly course, the Kenyan federation likely would select him for its Olympic team for Beijing.

The stiff easterly breeze blowing in his face dashed any chance of a record, but victory was secure, by the largest margin (1:18) in 16 years. When Cheruiyot crossed the line, he dropped to his knees and kissed the ground. Then he rose, grinning, and flashed four fingers.

Cheruiyot had been through the ritual before - the mayoral handshake, the wreath, the trophy, the anthem. What was significant this time was that after a troubled time back home, nothing had changed in Boston. A man from Kenya stood atop the podium.

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com

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