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LOS ANGELES MARATHON

Under the Weather

Rain Puts a Damper on Times but About 23,000 Still Take to the Streets

Men: Marathoning neophyte Mbithi prevails by making his move in 18th mile as defending champion is sunk by too-fast early pace.

March 06, 2000|JIM HODGES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It rained on Simon Bor's parade Sunday, so Benson Mutisya Mbithi got to play drum major.

Mbithi ran as if he wanted to get out of the weather--he did--in winning the Los Angeles Marathon over fellow Kenyan Mark Yatich and about 20,000 or so others who finished behind them Sunday in conditions most who have been around the event for all of its 15 years called the worst in race history.

The winning time was 2 hours 11 minutes 55 seconds, a pedestrian clocking on a day when the field had to ford a 26-mile, 385-yard stream.

"It was windy and cold, and at 25 kilometers, oh my God, it got worse!" said Yatich, who was 4:48 behind Mbithi after weaving up Flower Street to the finish line.

Peter Ndirangu, also from Kenya, was third at 2:17:42.

Bor finished fourth, almost two miles behind Mbithi at 2:20:12 after leading the race for 17 miles as the defending champion and course record-holder.

At least there was passing in the men's field. Jane Salumae, an Estonian who trains in San Diego, took over the women's race with her first stride, stretched out her lead and joined five men for company for most of the morning because there were no other women around.

Salumae finished in 2:33:33, 1:41 ahead of Romania's Nuta Olaru after slowing over the race's final miles.

A little rain doesn't hurt a race. It might even help keep a field cool enough for a hot performance.

But a deluge destroys it, particularly when the rain has fallen all night and a blustery wind is added.

"It rained so hard it hurt!" said race President Bill Burke after riding ahead of the runners all morning.

It was more than enough to dampen the surroundings. What is usually a carnival atmosphere along the entire course, with bands and dancers representing a veritable United Nations, was instead a stream of runners, plodding through neighborhoods where entertainers knew enough to get out of the rain.

Ordinarily there are rows of spectators lining the route, but on Sunday there were singles and occasional couples sharing umbrellas and coffee cups that had to look inviting to those splashing about in singlets and running shoes.

Signs sagged, as did spirits. Exhortations rang hollow.

"I wish not to ever run again in these kinds of conditions," said Salumae, who was able to smile at race's end, perhaps because she can drive to future races in the new car she was awarded, along with $35,000, for winning the race.

Mbithi's prize matched Salumae's, though his car is more likely to be turned into its $24,000 value for transport back to Kenya.

For some reason, none of this weather business fazed Bor, who went out at the start with his brother, Noah, and Godfrey Kiprotich as if the event were the Super Bowl 10K at Redondo Beach.

The younger Bor and Kiprotich were the race's rabbits, in the field to set the pace for 30 kilometers and then drop out and let the runners do what they could with the rest of the distance.

The pace they set was near suicidal.

"They were very fast," Yatich said.

"They went too fast," said Frederico Rosa, an Italian doctor who trains several of the runners, including Bor and Mbithi.

They were this fast:

* The first five miles were run in 23:56, which translates into about a 2:05 marathon, which would have been a world record.

* The first 10 miles were at 48:48, which extends into a 2:07 marathon, about 2 1/2 minutes faster than the race record.

Still, Simon Bor hopped with the rabbits, and Jonathan Ndambuki tried to stay with Bor, because he figured that's where the money was. Bonuses were contracted for fast times, the carrot in front of the field.

No one nibbled Sunday.

"I thought we could run 2:10, maybe 2:09 or even 2:08," Ndirangu said.

"But we couldn't do it in that weather."

Nobody could.

Ndirangu and Mbithi stayed back, Ndirangu knowing better because of the experience he has picked up over years of running roads around the world; Mbithi, because he watched Ndirangu.

Mbithi, 22, is a neophyte runner whose victory came in only his second marathon.

A few others stayed back and got a view of Bor and Ndambuki self-destructing.

It happened on the 18th mile, run over hills in Hollywood.

"I run hills best," said Mbithi, a protege of Cosmas Ndeti, the three-time Boston Marathon winner who took the youngster under his wing and entered him in the Hong Kong marathon barely more than a year ago.

Mbithi struggled home 13th in that race, running 2:25, and in January finished second to Ndirangu in a 30-kilometer race in Kenya. That's where Rosa spotted him and signed him up for Fila's elite team, which brought him to Southern California, where it never rains.

Except on Sunday.

Mbithi did run hills better than anybody else in this field, taking the 18th mile in a seemingly slow 5:21 that actually was much faster than could be mustered by a weary field.

He ran Mile 19 in a blistering 4:53, then clicked off miles of 4:50, 5:05, 4:49 and 4:49, opening his lead.

And wondering why he had one.

"They were running a slow pace [by then]," Mbithi said of the competition.

"When we went past Bor, I didn't know that Bor wasn't going to come back. I was still thinking Bor. Bor is the defending champion. When we went on the break, I thought he would come along."

Instead, Bor was spent and was steadily passed by Yatich and Ndirangu and, by race's end, was rumored to have dropped out.

As with most rumors, that was false.

"I don't know what happened to him," his coach, Rosa, said. "I'm looking for him."

By then, Bor had slipped back to his hotel room to get warm, lick his wounds and contemplate bonus money that was washed away on a day when a race became a parade, and it passed him by.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

OPEN-DIVISION WINNERS / MEN

2:11:55

BENSON MBITHI

Kenya

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