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General News 2 November 2000 – New York

A new Kenyan takes role as marathon favorite

A new Kenyan takes role as marathon favorite
Bert Rosenthal (AP)

2 November 2000 – New York - Kenyans have won the past three New York City Marathons, and another Kenyan is favoured Sunday.

This time, it's not John Kagwe, the 1997 and 1998 champion, nor Joseph Chebet, last year's winner. It's Japhet Kosgei, who did not start running competitively - marathons or otherwise - until 1996 at the ripe age of 28 when he was desperate for money.

Like many other Kenyans, Kosgei used to run to school and back, but he didn't get involved in the sport until his farming business faltered in late 1995.

"I needed capital,'' he said Wednesday. " I knew I had the ability and the talent to be a runner, but I had nobody to motivate me.''

Not even the great Kenyan runners of the past, such as Kip Keino, because Kosgei was unfamiliar with them. He lived in the suburb of Eldoret, 280 kilometers (175 miles) northwest of the capital Nairobi, and had not studied the country's sports history.

"I wanted a permanent job as a machine operator,'' Kosgei said. His parents felt the same way.

"They wanted to see me employed,'' he said.

Kosgei and his parents didn't get their wish. He realised that a machine operator's pay was inadequate - about dlrs 125 to dlrs 150 per month - and decided to find a more lucrative endeavour.

That's when Kosgei thought about becoming a tennis player or a runner. Tennis was ruled out quickly, even though "it has nice money,'' because there were so few facilities or instructors in Kenya.

That left running.

With no training, Kosgei embarked on a 4-kilometer (2.4-mile) run at night over Moi's Bridge near Eldoret "so nobody could see me.'' He ran in normal shoes because he didn't own a pair of running shoes.

"I didn't know what kind of shoes I needed for running,'' Kosgei said.

He ran fast enough to convince himself he could be competitive. Now, he had to convince others. It wasn't easy. Neither was his initial run.

"It was very hard,'' Kosgei said. ``I was very tired. I didn't know far to run.''

Kosgei joined a running club in Kenya, but that didn't work out.

He tried another club, but it was no different. The club coaches weren't convinced that his times, including 13 minutes, 42 seconds, for 5,000 meters, were legitimate.

"I could run faster than the other athletes,'' the frustrated Kosgei said. " But it was hard for me to find a coach. Every coach was turning me down. I sent faxes and newspaper clippings. The other coaches thought I was making them (the times) up.''

Other Kenyan athletes also were leery.

"They said, 'You didn't run in grammar school, you didn't run in secondary school, and you didn't run for seven years after that,''' Kosgei said.

Finally, in 1996, he asked Gabriele Rosa, one of the world's most respected and renowned coaches of distance runners, about becoming his coach.

"If he did not agree, I would go back to my family because I was running out of money and I was living in my brother's house,'' Kosgei said.

Rosa agreed, and the partnership has become very successful.

Under Rosa's tutelage, Kosgei has run four marathons and won them all.

He made his marathon debut at Turin in 1998 and ran 2:09:59. He followed that with a 2:11:27 at Venice in 1998, a career-best of 2:07:09 at Rotterdam in 1999 and a 2:07:15 at Tokyo this year.

At Tokyo, Kosgei outduelled Lee Bong-Joo of South Korea, the 1996 Olympic silver medallist, opening a 20-meter lead over the final 400 meters.

His time at Rotterdam makes him the fastest entrant in Sunday's race. His major competition is expected from Kagwe, who finished fifth last year; Mexico's German Silva, the 1994 and 1995 New York champion, and South Africa's Josia Thugwane, the 1996 Olympic gold medalist. Chebet was a late withdrawal because of illness.

If Kosgei wins, he would earn dlrs 65,000, plus bonus money – as much as another dlrs 65,000 for breaking 2:07:00, plus a car and motor scooter. In addition, he is receiving an undisclosed amount of appearance money.

The money he already has earned as a runner has made his parents particularly happy.

"We were not so well off as a family,'' said Kosgei, the youngest of eight children. "They're too old now and can't make any money.''

The 32-year-old Kosgei has taken good care of them. Recently, he bought them a new house.

"It was very tough at the beginning,'' he said. "But now I see that my hard training has paid off.''