- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 5, 2006

NEW YORK — It has been quite a while since both U.S. men and women have been contenders to win the world’s largest marathon.

In fact, for the better part of the past decade until recently, Americans have best avoided the New York City Marathon because they knew they would not place in the money against tougher international competition.

But this year is different, radically different.

The more than 2.5 million fans and 315 million television viewers worldwide will see many of America’s most competitive marathoners in today’s New York City Marathon.

Although race officials said they accepted between 51,000 and 52,000 applications out of 90,000 people who applied, they anticipate a starting field of 37,000 runners who will arrive at the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in Staten Island before traveling through New York’s other four boroughs before completing in Central Park.

The wheelchair racers are slated to start at 9:05 a.m., followed by the elite women at 9:35 and the men and non-elite women at 10:10. Temperatures are expected in the 40s and 50s.

Amongst the elites which consists of 13 Olympians, five Olympic medalists, the reigning Olympic marathon gold medalist, the current world record holder and both men’s and women’s defending NYCM champions are two American Olympians, Meb Keflezighi and Deena Kastor.

Both Keflezighi and Kastor have a good shot at winning. The last American man to triumph here was Alberto Salazar in 1982. The last American woman victorious at New York was even a more distant memory — Miki Gorman in 1977.

But Kastor truly has a shot this year. Much has happened to the Mammoth Lakes, Calif., resident since she ran her debut marathon here in 2001, a seventh-place effort in 2:26:58 under her maiden name Drossin. In her third marathon, she scored the bronzed medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics then lowered her time to an astounding 2:19:36 in a London Marathon victory 6 months ago.

That time is the American record and the eighth-fastest time ever by a woman as well as the fastest so far this year.

Yet she will have plenty of competition. Defending champ Jelena Prokopcuka of Latvia and 2004 and 2005 runner-up Susan Chepkemei of Kenya both return. The 2006 Boston Marathon titlist Rita Jeptoo, also of Kenya, tries her first New York marathon here today while the greatest threat is Catherine Ndereba.

The 34-year-old Kenyan who trains near Philadelphia has been the world’s most dominant woman over 26.2 miles in the past seven years. In 16 world-class marathons, she has placed first or second in 15, after a sixth in her Boston debut in 1999. She did redeem herself that year with a second here, the same fate she experienced in her only other visit here in 2003.

Two American 10K specialists — Katie McGregor of Minnesota and Samia Akbar of Herndon — are set to debut here.

The men’s side is competitive, too, and deeper. The top three from last year — world record holder Paul Tergat of Kenya (2:04:44 in 2003), Hendrick Ramaala of South Africa and 2004 Olympic silver medalist Keflezighi — are returning for a rematch of last year’s most dramatic New York finish ever.

Tergat edged out the falling Ramaala at the tape by three-tenths of a second, the closest margin of victory in the race’s history.

“What we saw last year was stress,” Tergat said with a smile at Thursday’s press conference. “I hope the winner this time has the last 100 meters to himself to just enjoy the win,” Ramaala said. “Not like last year.”

Tergat, 37, and Ramaala, 34, have raced head-to-head five times, with Tergat holding a 4-1 advantage.

Both Tergat (calf) and the 31-year-old Keflezighi (hamstring) are a bit nicked up, opening the door for Ramaala and for 2004 Olympic gold medalist Stefano Baldini who rises to the occasion in big races.

Americans Alan Culpepper, Peter Gilmore, and Dathan Ritzenhein, a 10,000-meter champion making his much-anticipated marathon debut, are looking for top 10 finishes.

Today’s race offers the largest guaranteed prize purse in marathon history with more than $740,000 including $130,000 for each race champion. Part of the prize purse includes $100,000 for U.S. runners with $20,000 to the top American per gender. In addition, the race offers time bonuses starting at sub-2:11:30 (men) and sub-2:29:00 (women).

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