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L.A. MARATHON

Training Day

Kirui has struggled in recent years to regain winning form, but he's focused on running well Sunday, and beyond

March 06, 2004|John Ortega | Times Staff Writer

In some ways, David Kirui fits the stereotype of the elite Kenyan marathoner.

Kirui, 26, grew up in a rural village in the Rift Valley, where walking or running was his main form of locomotion.

It was not uncommon for him to run six kilometers, nearly four miles, on the way to and from school. And he no doubt logged more mileage in races with classmates and games he played with family and friends.

Living at 6,000 feet elevation also made for great training.

But contrary to the stereotype that portrays Kenyans as running machines who take to the marathon like ducks to water, Kirui has had his share of struggles in the 26-mile 385-yard race.

"You are always learning about it," said Kirui, one of 15 Kenyans who will be part of the elite men's field in the 19th Los Angeles Marathon on Sunday. "Sometimes you run well, but sometimes you don't. And you ask yourself, 'What happened?' It is a mystery."

One look at Kirui's record in the previous two years and it's easy to understand his bafflement.

He won the first three marathons he ran, in 2000, then cut more than two minutes off his best time and finished second in 2 hours 9 minutes 40 seconds in the 2001 Paris Marathon.

Kirui sped past countryman Fred Kiprop in the final 100 meters of that race and narrowly missed catching winner Simon Biwott, who won the silver medal for Kenya in the World Championships in Edmonton later that summer.

Kirui has had difficulty duplicating that performance since, however, and will be regarded as somewhat of a longshot Sunday, behind runners such as Kenyan Stephen Ndungu, the champion in 2001 and 2002 and runner-up last year.

"You've got to beat Ndungu," said Toni Reavis, a running expert who has done the television commentary for the L.A. Marathon since it began. "He can't kick to save his life, but he's not going to make a mistake and beat himself."

Ndungu ran 2:13:13, 2:10:27 and 2:09:54 over the L.A. Marathon course the previous three years. Kirui has beaten 2:17 only once since his breakthrough race in Paris.

He finished 12th in 2:17:50 in the Venice Marathon in Italy in October 2002 and was ninth in 2:20:31 in a marathon in the United Arab Emirates two months later.

He failed to finish the L.A. Marathon last year but lowered his best to 2:08:53 in finishing seventh in Paris a month later in a race in which the top four runners broke 2:07.

However, that was followed by a 31st-place finish in 2:27:10 in New York in November.

"I had [a groin] injury in New York that did not reveal itself in training," said Kirui, who is married and the father of a 1 1/2-year-old son. "I did not discover it until we ran down a bridge and made a turn at the bottom of a hill. At that point, I knew I was not at my best. But I wanted to finish."

Renato Canova, an Italian coach who began working with Kirui in 2000, says a lack of consistent training has led to his inconsistency in races.

"He is like a lot of Kenyans in that, in short time, he can improve very, very quickly," Canova said. "But in training, he needs more continuity. If he is able to continue training well after running in Los Angeles, if he can go back to Kenya and continue to train well, he could run a very good marathon later this year."

Canova, who works with Kenyan Amos Korir in the training of many Kenyan runners, met Kirui through his older brother, Philip, who is best known for his exploits at the half-marathon distance.

Canova says David Kirui has the potential to run the marathon under 2:07.

"He's still young and he has never really had complete training," Canova said. "I think he could run two minutes faster than he has if he did."

For the time being, Kirui is focused on trying to win Sunday and running fast enough to make up a 20-minute 30-second handicap that the elite women's field will be given against the men.

The handicap is part of the inaugural challenge portion of the L.A. Marathon in which race organizers will award a $50,000 bonus to the first runner, male or female, to cross the finish line.

That will be in addition to $25,000 and a car worth $26,400 that the men's and women's winners will each receive.

"It will be a race within a race," Kirui said. "Because we will be trying to win the men's race, but we will also be trying to catch the ladies."

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Kenyans' Domain

The men's open division of the L.A. Marathon has been dominated the last five years by Kenyan runners, who have swept at least the top three finishes each year. The winners since 1999:

*--* 1999 Simon Bor 2:09:25 2000 Benson Mbithi 2:11:55 2001 Stephen Ndungu 2:13:13 2002 Stephen Ndungu 2:10:27 2003 Mark Yatich 2:09:52

*--*

Starting Line

*--* Start times for Sunday's events: Bike tour 6 a.m. Wheelchair 8:05 a.m. Crank chair 8:10 a.m. Runners/walkers 8:30 a.m.

*--*

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