3 Africans favored in tomorrow's race Among the women, Europeans tough

April 19, 1992|By Phil Jackman | Phil Jackman,Staff Writer

The route of the Boston Marathon begins in rural Hopkinton, winds through suburban Ashland, Framingham, Natick, Wellesley and Newton before getting down to business at Chestnut Hill and on the oldest thoroughfares in Boston.

If the immediate past is any indication of what can be expected in the 96th running of the race, which starts at noon tomorrow, those first 25 miles or so will serve only as a warm-up for the top contenders.

On paper, the men running for the laurel wreath are Africans Ibrahim Hussein, Abebe Mekonnen and Juma Ikangaa. Britain's Steve Jones is a long shot.

Hussein, a Kenyan, is the defending champion. He's primed, after training the past four months for Boston, which is the race to determine his country's entry in this summer's Olympic Marathon in Barcelona, Spain.

"The federation in my country has told me loosely I'm on the team, But you never know. I better make sure," he said, after his last long workout the other day.

Mekonnen, an Ethiopian, won the first Boston Marathon he attempted, in 1989. His time of 2:09:06 was nothing short of great for a first-time starter. Ikangaa finished second that year.

Mekonnen did not come back to defend in 1990, finishing second in the Rotterdam Marathon in the Netherlands instead. But Boston, he soon learned, was where he belonged.

"It is one of the most prestigious and oldest marathons in the world," he said. "For these reasons alone I come here to win. To me, this is the most important marathon."

One can imagine how finishing second, 16 seconds behind rival Hussein, rests with the former world champion, who holds the No. 2 ranking among marathoners.

If Mekonnen bemoans a 16-second loss, recall the travail of Ikangaa, the wispy Tanzanian who has finished runner-up in Boston from 1989 to 1991. Allowed to redistribute those seconds, Ikangaa would have had two victories.

The men all run a similar race, spoiling for a fast early pace to burn off the pretenders, then settling into a relaxed mode while readying for an all-out sprint at the end.

Last year, for instance, Hussein was more than a half-mile ahead of Mekonnen in the last quarter of the race, only to cross the finish line at Copley Square 100 meters ahead of the Ethiopian.

Hussein considered Mekonnen's effort afterward and said, "When you run 2:11, you can still sprint at the end." In the 1988 race, Hussein ran down Ikangaa in the last 100 meters.

Jones, for all his success -- two wins and a world record in Chicago and victory at the New York Marathon -- has his problems with Boston's downhill course. He's tried every strategy with only a third to show for his efforts.

In the women's race, too, foreign athletes figure to dominate. Defending champion Wanda Panfil of Poland appears too strong to be beaten.

Germany's Uta Pippig and Olka Markova of Russia seem the strongest threats, along with Jane Welzel of the United States.

The U.S. men's Olympic Trials Marathon was staged in Columbus, Ohio, a week ago, costing Boston the three Barcelona qualifiers -- Steve Spence, Ed Eyestone and Bob Kempainnen -- among others. Chances are they wouldn't have been up to matching the sub-2:10 efforts of the Africans, anyway.

The same applies on the women's side, where Janis Klecker, Cathy O'Brien and Francie Larrieu Smith qualified for the Olympics in January and are just getting back into heavy training for Barcelona.

A record field, which could approach 10,000, is expected to answer the starter's pistol on the Hopkinton Green. About 15 minutes before the start, the wheelchair division pushes off, and Mustapha Badid's course record of 1:29:53 may be in jeopardy.

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