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LOS ANGELES MARATHON

Wind Jammers

LOS ANGELES MARATHON XVI, MEN'S WINNER: 2:13:13; STEPHEN NDUNGU, Kenya

Men: Ndungu doesn't let gusty conditions bother him, finishing two minutes ahead of field in leading Kenyans to top four spots.

March 05, 2001|PAUL GUTIERREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The rain stayed away Sunday.

Instead, the wind showed up in its place and wreaked havoc with runners throughout the second half of the 16th Los Angeles Marathon.

But by the time Stephen Ndungu outlasted a field of 21,072 and ran face first into the brutal headwind and tackled the rolling hills in Hollywood, the Kenyan already was beginning to open up an insurmountable lead.

While Ndungu's winning time of 2 hours 13 minutes 13 seconds was 78 seconds slower than last year's winning mark, it was two minutes better than the time of second-place finisher Ben Kimondiu, a Kenyan making his marathon debut.

Still, Ndungu's winning time is the fourth-slowest since the race began in 1986. And it did mark the slowest winning time since El-Maati Chaham's 2:14:16 in 1997, the year the course was reconfigured to its present route.

Defending men's champion Benson Mbithi, also from Kenya, finished third Sunday in 2:15:33.

"It was such a competitive field," Ndungu said, "that I had to use my initiative to get away."

Rain had been forecast for the marathon but when the course stayed dry in the 56-degree overcast weather and finishing times did not improve dramatically from last year's water-logged race, many pointed to the gusts.

Mbithi won last year's race in 2:11:55 despite a downpour and the worst weather conditions in the race's history.

"There was a lot of wind," Kimondiu said. "But I didn't think a lot about it because I knew that everybody would have to face it.

"I think [it contributed to slower times] because it blows you back. It's a factor."

Kevin Collins, an American who finished sixth in 2:17:47, said Hollywood was the windiest part of the 26.2-mile course.

"Particularly on Hollywood Boulevard and Sunset," he said. "It was rough enough to where you had to bend your head down and kind of look at the pavement instead of keeping your eyes fixed up ahead."

Collins, 29, trains with the Discovery U.S.A. camp in Mt. Laguna, Calif., and came within 48 seconds of setting a personal best.

"I was separated [behind the leaders] by that point [in Hollywood] so I had to deal with it," he said. "I wasn't liking it too much . . . but I was anticipating the downhills as a way to make up whatever [time] was lost on that portion."

After running a 4:45 split for the first mile, the leaders' pace fell to 5:31 for Mile 8, between the Crenshaw District and Koreatown.

The pace picked up again five miles later to a race-best 4:28 at Mile 13, in the heart of Koreatown.

Mbithi thought that the pace was too slow during the first half, contributing to slower-than-expected finishing times.

"We ran a fast second half," Mbithi said. "The first half was too slow."

Ndungu agreed, without blaming the rabbits--runners in the field with the purpose of setting the pace before dropping out.

"The problem was not with the pace setters," Ndungu said. "It was our fault because we didn't push them to run faster."

Ndungu, 33, made his move early, less than 15 miles into the race when he caught up with rabbit Godfrey Kiprotich heading into Hollywood.

Ndungu first took the lead at Mile 18.

At Mile 20, Ndungu's lead stretched to 39 seconds, ahead of the pack of Kenyans--Kimondiu, Mbithi and Fredrick Chumba, who finished fourth in 2:17:06.

Entering the hilly portion of the race, which peaked at a course-high elevation of 401 feet above sea level, Ndungu poured it on and distanced himself from the field.

"It was part of my tactics, I had to do it like that," Ndungu said. "You know, this is war. You have to cover yourself."

Mbithi was surprised at his countryman's game plan.

"I was not thinking that he was going that far," Mbithi said. "But he did and kept going."

Ndungu also opened the gap at Miles 22 and 23, a downhill stretch on Virgil Avenue, with strong finishing splits.

Ndungu's last five mile splits were 5:06, 4:46, 4:48, 4:50 and 5:01.

The son of a farmer in Kenya, Ndungu only began running competitively three years ago.

"Initially," he said, "running was not my career, nor was it my hobby."

Yet with the manner in which he distanced himself in the hills and wind, it was obvious that Ndungu has found his calling. Especially since the Hollywood gusts did not bother Ndungu as much as they did his challengers.

"My mind was not on the wind," he said. "Maybe I did feel it but I couldn't concentrate on that. I had to concentrate on what I was doing."

*

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