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L.A. MARATHON / Sunday, 8 a.m., Channel 4

Defending Champion Is Streaky Kind of Runner

March 01, 2003|John Ortega | Times Staff Writer

Stephen Ndungu calls himself an "amateur" compared to the top distance runners in his native Kenya.

But if the 35-year-old father of three wins the 18th Los Angeles Marathon on Sunday, he will join a select club.

A victory would be Ndungu's third consecutive and, combined with his victories in the Houston Marathon from 1998-2000, make him one of only three runners to have won three consecutive races in two major-city marathons.

American Bill Rodgers, the fourth man to break 2 hours and 10 minutes in the marathon, won four consecutive New York City Marathon titles from 1976-79 and three consecutive Boston Marathon championships from 1978-80.

German Katrin Dorre, the only woman to have posted top-five marathon finishes in three Olympic Games, was the London Marathon champion from 1992-94 and the Frankfurt Marathon champion from 1995-97.

The L.A. and Houston marathons aren't held in the same esteem as those in New York, Boston or London. But a victory by Ndungu on Sunday would show him, once again, that he made a wise decision in 1997 when he began to pursue his dream of becoming a professional marathoner.

"It would mean a great thing to me," the soft-spoken Ndungu said. "It's unheard of for one to go and win L.A. twice in a row. And if I make it three, I'm going to make history.... To me it would be a great achievement."

Ndungu, the oldest of eight children, says he wasn't a "strong sportsman" growing up. But he wanted to find a way to keep fit when he joined the Kenyan military at 22.

He tried playing soccer, but struggled.

He gave volleyball a shot, but found his 5 feet 7 inches limited his success.

But running was something he enjoyed.

So Ndungu ran to keep fit. Then, when John Kagwe, another Kenyan in the military, began to excel in marathons in the mid-1990s, Ndungu started to think about becoming a professional runner.

"He would finish maybe 30 or 40 minutes in front of me in long [training] runs," Ndungu said of Kagwe, who won the New York Marathon in 1997 and '98. "But I eventually got better and began to think, 'If he can make it, why not me?' "

Ndungu says he didn't know what he was doing when he made his marathon debut in Berlin in September 1997 at 30, but he averaged a shade over five-minutes-a-mile pace while finishing 14th with a 2:11:16 clocking in the 26-mile 385-yard race.

He won for the first time at Houston in 1998, following with victories there in 1999 and 2000.

He entered his first L.A. Marathon in 2001 and won it in 2:13:13, breaking away from the lead pack in the 18th mile.

Last year, he became the first man to win the L.A. Marathon in consecutive years when he surged away from the leaders just after the 19-mile mark and finished in a then-career best of 2:10:27 on a reconfigured course that was flatter than in previous years.

Ndungu made strong and decisive breaks from the pack in both victories, but it was a lack of confidence in his finishing kick that prompted those moves.

"I fear that if I run with those guys until the last kilometer, they're going to outsprint me," Ndungu said. "And that is the thing that I don't admire, so I need to get away while there is still time."

Ndungu lowered his career best to 2:10:24 in finishing second in the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon at San Diego last June but placed a disappointing 10th in 2:13:28 in New York in November.

"I don't know if it's the weather or the cold or the course, but I just have not run well," Ndungu said of his New York races. "Some of the hills around the bridges have given me problems."

Despite his struggles in New York, Ndungu is pleased with the way his career has gone.

He trains with a group of marathoners in Kenya who have bests ranging from 2:10 to 2:13, the prize money he has won has allowed him and his family to live comfortably in a middle-class neighborhood in his hometown of Nakuru, and his racing schedule has taken him to parts of the world he would not have seen otherwise.

"The most enjoyable thing in my running is all the traveling," he said. "Back there, for one to cross from one country to another by itself is an achievement. To get to meet people from different cultures and to get to run against them, that is a big achievement for me."

Ndungu admits he has a long way to go if he's going to fulfill his dream of representing his country in the Olympics or World Championships. But he says that he and other lesser-known runners in Kenya gain motivation from the exploits of countrymen such as John Ngugi, the 1988 Olympic champion in the 5,000 meters and a five-time world cross-country champion, and Paul Tergat, the Olympic silver medalist in the 10,000 in 1996 and 2000 and the second-fastest marathoner in history with a best of 2:05:48.

"We know [runners like Tergat] are strong," Ndungu said. "They are good and maybe we cannot get that good, to their class, at the moment. But we are hoping, as times goes, that maybe one time we're going to beat them."

MARATHON MAP

California / Section B

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Foreign Flavor

In the 17-year history of the L.A. Marathon, the men's race has been won by a U.S. runner on three times. The men's champions:

*--* 2002 Stephen Ndungu Kenya 2001 Stephen Ndungu Kenya 2000 Benson Mutiisya Mbithi Kenya 1999 Simon Bor Kenya 1998 Zebedayo Bayo Tanzania 1997 El-Maati Chaham Morocco 1996 Jose Luis Molina Costa Rica 1995 Rolando Vera Ecuador 1994 Paul Pilkington U.S 1993 Joselido Rocha Brazil 1992 John Treacy Ireland 1991 Mark Plastes U.S 1990 Pedro Ortiz Colombia 1989 Art Boileau Canada 1988 Martin Mondragon Mexico 1987 Art Boileau Canada 1986 Ric Sayre U.S

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