For thousands, a test of will

All sizes, ages, talents hit streets tomorrow

Baltimore Marathon

October 19, 2001|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

Joe Fan dreams of catching the game-winning touchdown pass, but stays in the stands at PSINet Stadium. He can play golf at Pebble Beach, but not in a tournament that includes Tiger Woods.

Then there's road racing - the running variety - in which anyone with a tolerance for pain and $65 can compete in an event that attracts professional athletes and the occasional Olympian.

That will be the scene tomorrow when the inaugural Baltimore Marathon Festival returns major road racing to the area for the first time since 1989.

More than 6,500 men and women from 46 states and six foreign countries will combat the morning chill in the Comcast Baltimore Marathon, a counterclockwise tour of the city.

Race director Dave Cooley estimates one-third are first-time marathoners, and the finish line will still be operating eight hours after Mayor Martin O'Malley blasts the starter's horn at 8:30 a.m. on Russell Street.

A select group of men will hit the finish line in Parking Lot C, east of PSINet Stadium, before 10:50 a.m., having covered the 26-mile, 385-yard course in better than 2 hours, 20 minutes.

Baltimore doesn't have Boston's tradition or New York's first-place prize of $80,000 and a car, but it will have an air of legitimacy thanks to a factor that has become common at distance races around the world: men from Africa's Rift Valley capable of dominating the field.

The hottest marathoner coming to Baltimore is Josh Cox, but it's been only two months since he was the top American in the world championships in Edmonton, Alberta, so he'll opt for the Fila 5K, the companion race that bears the name of his sponsor.

Without him, the marathon could boil down to three Kenyans.

Fila flew in Sammy Kosgei, who has three marathons under 2:16 on his resume, and Luka Cherono, a 24-year-old who showed great promise on the New England road circuit in 1998 before he came down with a knee injury.

Back home, Cherono is just another member of the Kalenjin tribe, the clan that includes Olympic 1,500-meter champ Noah Ngeny and five-time world cross country champion Paul Tergat.

"We like training in Kenya," Cherono said, in a bit of an understatement. "It's a very good environment for running."

On Tuesday night, the lead pack added the 2:18 credentials of Simon Cherokony, another Kenyan. He trains in Chapel Hill, N.C., with the Global Mbio Club.

"Mbio" is Swahili for running fast, and that's what teammate Eliud Barngetuny, an 8-minute, 5-second runner in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, plans to do when he challenges Cox in the Fila 5K, where the field figures to exceed 1,000.

Russian Gennady Temnikov and a handful of men with East Coast ties, among them Michael Harrison and former Baltimore resident John Reich, hope to maintain contact with the Kenyans, who should set a pace better than 5 minutes, 20 seconds per mile.

To appreciate that effort, hit your local high school track and run a lap in 80 seconds. Do it another 105 times and you've got a 2-hour, 19-minute marathon.

On the women's side, the absence of Baltimore's premier endurance athletes makes Elvira Kolpakova, a 29-year-old from Russia, the favorite to earn the first-place prize money, $3,000.

Olympic triathlete Joanna Zeiger is still recovering from the Ironman ultra test in Hawaii on Oct. 7, and Ruxton's Lee DiPietro needs another week or so to heal a stress fracture.

Kolpakova has a marathon best of 2:36, and in August she took the World Challenge 100K in France, more than 62 miles. Laura Nelson is also made of sturdy stuff. Besides a marathon resume that includes 15 wins, she's a three-time champion in the JFK 50-Miler in Western Maryland.

The marathon has a race within the race, as the Geico Direct Team Relay was limited to 400 four-person teams. The last man across the starting line will be 1996 Olympian Keith Brantly, who'll earn a dollar for charity for every runner he passes.

There are hundreds of other fund-racers entered, and nearly as many tourists. Four friends from Southern California have seen America through marathoning. It will be the 55th marathon for Mary Ehrlich, a resident of Perris, Calif., who's 73 years young. Henry and Theresa Wolfe are a husband and wife team from San Bernardino. Kathleen Callaway, 70, of Redlands, rounds out the group.

"Mary [Ehrlich] and I started doing this together in December 1991," Callaway said. "I remember Nashville and Coeur d'Alene [Idaho], but they've all been nice. We've done the Marine Corps [in Washington], but we've never been to Baltimore."

Novices are urged to show caution and make frequent use of the water stops, which will be stationed every two miles through the 14th mile, then every mile.

It may be chilly at the staging area at 8 a.m., but Baltimore is going to heat up to the mid-60s tomorrow. Deaths are not uncommon in marathons, and organizers ask anyone who doesn't feel well to drop out and seek assistance.

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