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ATHENS 2004

Kastor Beats Odds, Heat in Marathon

Japan's Noguchi wins, but the Agoura High graduate finishes third to become the first American woman to win a medal since 1984.

August 23, 2004|Mike Penner | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — If Pheidippides did indeed live, these must have been the conditions that killed him.

Ninety-five degrees and 65% humidity at 6 p.m., when the running began.

According to the legend, Pheidippides covered 26 miles on foot in 490 BC, carrying the news from Marathon to Athens that Greece had defeated Persia in the Battle of Marathon. As the story goes, Pheidippides delivered the bulletin -- "Rejoice! We conquer!" -- and keeled on the spot.

And on that day, a Greek herald died, and an Olympic torture test was born.

Nearly 2,500 years later, on a sweltering Sunday evening, 82 women retraced the trail of the original marathon.

By the time Deena Kastor reached the finish inside Panathinaiko Stadium, the course behind her was littered with runners who surrendered, beaten by the heat.

One was Britain's Paula Radcliffe, the heavy favorite, who at 36 kilometers was left sitting on the side of the road, sobbing, with her head propped against her knees.

Kastor, an Agoura High graduate, finished third, earning the United States' first marathon medal since Joan Benoit won the first women's Olympic marathon in 1984. Overwhelmed by the heat, the history and the achievement, Kastor burst into tears as soon as she crossed the finish.

Kastor's time of 2 hours 27 minutes 20 seconds was eclipsed by only winner Mizuki Noguchi of Japan (2:26.20) and Catherine Ndereba of Kenya (2:26.32).

Two other Americans, Jennifer Rhines and Colleen de Reuck, finished 34th and 39th. Rhines completed the course in 2:35.18, De Reuck in 2:37.20.

"When I entered the stadium, I didn't know if I was in fourth place or third," Kastor said. "When I heard the announcer say third, I burst into tears. I couldn't control myself. With the course and the history, it's all just wonderful."

Kastor's strategy was to negotiate the beginning very conservatively, running in shade wherever she could find it and doubling up the amount of energy drink she normally consumes during a marathon -- from 32 ounces to 64.

Kastor completed the first 5 kilometers in 28th place and was 17th after 10 kilometers. By the halfway point, she had moved up to 12th. At 40 kilometers, she was fourth, but still 18 seconds behind Ethiopia's Elfenesh Alemu.

"I was getting mixed messages on the course," Kastor said. "Spectators were telling me where I stood. Two different people told me if I caught the girl in front of me, I'd be third. One other said I'd be in fourth."

Less than a mile from the finish, Kastor passed Alemu, eventually crossing the line 55 seconds ahead of the Ethiopian, who had placed sixth in the 2000 Olympic marathon.

The 1-2 finish by Noguchi and Ndereba was a reversal of how the runners placed at the 2003 world championships.

The diminutive Noguchi, 4 feet 11 and 88 pounds, said her strategy was to "start fast, and then my coach told me, 'At 25 kilometers, you go very fast!' "

A similar strategy backfired on Radcliffe, the world-record holder. Radcliffe led or was near the lead through 15 kilometers and was second at the halfway point. But she faded to a distant third at 30 kilometers before staggering off the course.

Radcliffe was among 16 runners who did not finish the race.

So how does one prepare for a marathon contested in such steamy conditions?

Kastor did her pre-Olympics training at Mammoth Lakes, running at high altitude in hilly terrain while wearing layers of clothing in an attempt to mimic the kind of humidity she would face in Greece.

Then, at the race's start in Marathon, while other competitors were outside in the heat stretching and jogging to loosen up, Kastor and her American teammates stayed inside, cooling off by wearing ice vests.

Kastor entered the stadium looking fresher than the two runners ahead of her. It was suggested to Kastor that she might have caught Noguchi and Ndereba had the race lasted a bit longer.

Kastor laughed at the notion.

"I was ready for it to be over," she said wearily. "I was ready for the finish line."

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