Sunday, April 18, 2004

BOSTON — Few of the elite women in tomorrow’s 108th Boston Marathon will complain about their separate start.

By starting before the rest of the field, the 35 or so elite women will have room to run, fans and the television cameras will see them better, and they will be able to track each other.

The earlier start probably will not matter to favored Catherine Nderebaof Kenya, Elfenesh Alemu of Ethiopia or Jelena Prokopcuka of Latvia, who should keep one another busy during much of the 26.2-mile contest from rural Hopkinton to the city of Boston.

Ndereba, who ran strongly at the April4 Cherry Blossom 10-Miler in the District, won here in 2000 and 2001 but lost a close race to countrywoman Margaret Okayo in 2002. She was second at London last year instead of running at Boston, then won at the World Championships in August. Ndereba owns the second-fastest marathon time ever at 2:18:47 and has a spot on the Kenyan Olympic team.

Among the men, Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot and Benjamin Kosgei Kimutai, who were 1-2 last year, will lead a large contingent of Kenyans into the top 10, as has been the case since 1991. An $80,000 check awaits both the men’s and women’s victors.

But not all the elite women are excited about starting at 11:31 a.m., 29 minutes before the rest of the 20,379 entrants — a field second in size only to the 100th running in 1996.

Lee Di Pietro, from the Baltimore suburb of Ruxton, Md., said she enjoys the company of male runners in a marathon. In a females only field, she expects to be running parts of the race alone.

Di Pietro, 46, passed up the opportunity to run in the April3 U.S. Women’s Olympic Marathon Trials for a shot at a top finish at Boston. While she most likely will not be the fastest masters runner (40 and older) because of three swift Russians in the field, she could top all the American masters women.

At Boston she has a shot at earning a couple of thousand dollars in prize money, and her heart is in Boston.

“I really, really struggled over this,” Di Pietro said of her decision to forego the trials. “I knew when I qualified, I would have to make this decision. When I ran the trials before [in 2000], it was an honor to line up with all these incredible women. It is great to say I ran these trials and I came in [59th] place, but at my age you need to do what’s right for you. Boston is a really special race for me.

“Boston was what started me in my whole running career. My sister used to run it 20 years ago. She would ask me to run the last 10 miles. I thought that was a long way.”

Di Pietro who completed her first marathon at New York City the following fall, grew up around the Boston Marathon. She was born in the city’s Beverly suburb and attended Boston University, where she played lacrosse from 1976 to 1980.

The tall, muscular Di Pietro became hooked on triathlons, placing 11th at the 1996 Ironman, sixth in 1997 and 15th in 1998. But her true love is the marathon, especially Boston’s.

“I’ve done well there,” she said. “I love the support.” Her finishes among masters at Boston have been fifth in 2003 and 2001 and seventh in 1999.

She enters the race in great shape, having knocked 14 seconds off her personal best with a 2:47:16 at the 2003 Grandma’s Marathon last June. She ran her fastest half marathon in Philadelphia in September, where she set the 45-49 American record and earned USA Track & Field Athlete of the Year for distance running for age 45-49.

What may help Di Pietro are the few days she spent last month training in the heat in Del Ray, Fla. The weather could be a factor tomorrow, with temperatures expected in the upper 70s to low 80s, and has been the main subject of conversation the past few days. Northern runners, for example, have trained for months in temperatures in the 30s and 40s and will not be used to near-summer like temperatures.

The Boston Athletic Association, organizer of the marathon, released a statement yesterday urging participants to “run safely and smartly. Warmer than normal temperatures are predicted for Monday’s Boston Marathon, and the BAA has responded by adjusting its normal medical coverage and fluid replacement program. Participants are also encouraged to be cognizant of their fluid intake and to modify their racing goals.”

That is exactly what then-Georgetown University student Jack Fultz did in 1976 when that year’s race, known as the “Run for the Hoses,” occurred in temperatures approaching 100 degrees. More than 40 percent of the 1,942 starters were forced to quit, but 27-year-old Fultz smartly held back and won.

Completing the race is the goal for much of the field. Bennett Beach, 54, of Bethesda, in town to attempt his 37th consecutive Boston Marathon finish, still trails all-time leader Neil Weygandt by one year. Two Alexandria residents are long-time participants: Steve Coffman with 26 consecutive completions and Robert Malm with 25.

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