Birhanu, Dubovik doubly surprising

Men's winner breaks from pack

women's plays catch-up

October 15, 2006|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,Sun reporter

A rookie from Ethiopia who was shunned by Chicago and a 42-year-old woman from Ukraine who showed up unexpectedly found happiness and a $15,000 payday at the Under Armour Baltimore Marathon yesterday.

Yirefu Birhanu, 20, won in 2 hours, 16 minutes, 27 seconds, as he broke free in Mile 23, along 33rd Street. An accomplished half-marathoner, Birhanu was primed to make his marathon debut in Chicago, one week from today, but couldn't get expense money there.

Rima Dubovik was not on the elite athlete list in Baltimore, as she paid her own way from Kiev and was put up Friday night by a Johns Hopkins assistant professor. She trailed by more than a minute at the halfway point but took control in the 22nd mile and rolled home in a women's race-record 2:35:45.

The Baltimore Running Festival celebrated its sixth year yesterday. No woman had broken 2:40, until four did yesterday.

Seven men broke 2:20, another Baltimore record, but 2005 champion Mykola Antonenko and David Cheruiyot, another pre-race favorite, lamented dawdling tactics that played into the hands of the younger, faster Birhanu.

Birhanu finished 10th at the World Junior cross country championships in 2004, won two half-marathons in Spain earlier this year, and made his first race in the United States a memorable one yesterday.

"God bless America," said Rachid Tbahi, Birhanu's New York-based agent, who interpreted for him.

Tbahi said that others' regrets about the pace were irrelevant and that the training work Birhanu had done in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa was not going to be topped yesterday.

"He [Birhanu] prepared to run 2:09," said Tbahi, a native of Morocco who ran 2:16 in his day. "Since Chicago turned him down, I told him to wait four, five weeks, and I would find him another fast race. He said, `No, I'm ready,' so then he comes here for the prize money."

Birhanu's chunk of the festival's $100,000 purse appeared in doubt until Mile 23, but not to the men who understood his closing speed.

Both Cheruiyot and Antonenko threw in tentative surges, but when no takers went along, they receded back into a pack of a baker's dozen heading into Fort McHenry, near Mile 10. They were on a 2:20 pace at the halfway mark, which Antonenko described as "suicide" for him. Eight men remained in the hunt at Mile 20, near the statue of Martin Luther south of Lake Montebello, but then they began racing for real, with a couple of 5:03 miles.

Birhanu covered Mile 23 in 4:47 and 24 in 4:49, cracking open a 15-second lead. Down Howard and Eutaw streets, he repeatedly glanced back, but by then Birhanu had enough of a cushion he could have downed a danish at Lexington Market. He finished 29 seconds in front of Antonenko, who passed Wilson Komen for good near the 24-mile marker.

Dubovik had to hustle just to contend, as she trailed Peru's Maria Portilla by more than a minute at 13.1 miles, alongside Harborplace. Dubovik passed Ilona Barvanova in Mile 17, saw Portilla 100 meters ahead, "and started to believe." She took control in the 22nd mile and beat Portilla by 39 seconds, making this her fifth straight year with a marathon title, others coming in Germany, Turkey and Texas.

Dubovik took notice of Baltimore last year, when Ukrainians Antonenko and Barvanova won and finished second, respectively. She purchased airfare to come here in September but said her agent neglected to notify organizers of her desire to run Baltimore.

A hasty e-mail was sent out, seeking a spare bedroom for Dubovik. Craig Morrell answered the need, and provided a coincidence that widened Dubovik's eyes.

Morrell, a researcher at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine who finished 23rd among the men, lives on the same block in Rodgers Forge that Michael Phelps calls home when he's in town. One of Dubovik's good friends in the Ukraine is Yana Klochkova, who didn't win six gold medals at the Athens Olympics like Phelps, but was the best all-around female swimmer there.

"It's definitely the street of champions now," Morrell said.

Pasta salad and playing with Morrell's son Eric, 2, put Dubovik at ease Friday night. She worked as a teacher for seven years, and said, "I really like children."

Dubovik has a daughter older than Birhanu. Yesterday, she showed all the kids how it's done.

paul.mcmullen@baltsun.com

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