In the end, Lel proves a bit stronger than Rop

Martin Lel and Rodgers Rop are good friends. Lel, 24, and Rop, 27, have trained together in their native Kenya.

FRANK LITSKY

Martin Lel, the top finisher in the men's section. — Pic. REUTERS-

Martin Lel and Rodgers Rop are good friends. Lel, 24, and Rop, 27, have trained together in their native Kenya. Lel has won his last three half-marathons, the most recent at the world championships a month ago in Portugal. Rop won the New York City Marathon last November and the Boston Marathon in April.

Lel and Rop were sure they would run well in the New York City Marathon, and they did. In the second half of the race, they drew away from an oversize lead pack of 25 or 30. Lel went on to beat Rop by 200 metres, almost all of that achieved in the last half-mile, inside Central Park from 59th Street to the 67th Street finish.

Their countrymen Christopher Cheboiboch, 26, finished third and Elly Rono, 33, was fourth. Kenyans also placed seventh, eighth and ninth. In all, 11 of the top 20 finishers were from Kenya.

The five-borough race covered 26 miles 385 yards from the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in Staten Island to Central Park in Manhattan. It attracted more than 35,000 men, women and wheelchair racers. Lel's winning time was two hours 10 minutes, 30 seconds, the slowest here since German Silva's 2:11:00 in 1995. Blame the weather and that big pack of leaders, Lel said.

For the spectators, the weather was ideal — 61 degrees at the start and 65 when the winners finished. For the runners, it was a bit too warm.

"It was hot," Lel said. "I could have gone faster if it wasn't."

Overcrowding is common for the first few miles of a race like this, but a dozen or so serious contenders usually break clear of the pretenders. This time, for the first half, the thick running traffic made caution a prime consideration.

"It was very difficult for me to run with them," Lel said. "I was back of them because 10 of them were very strong. When I was at 13 miles, I was stepped on by a Kenyan guy."

The overcrowding ended after 16 miles. The leaders had crossed the Queensboro Bridge into Manhattan and headed for the long First Avenue straightaway. Rop upped the ante there with successive miles in 4:40, 4:42 and 4:42. That reduced the lead pack to five, all Kenyans, and soon that group thinned out.

"I could not keep it up any longer," said Rop, who finished in 2:11:11. "My aim was to reduce the group. Then, after doing that, I said, `Let others come and do.'"

The only one who came and did was Lel. After 21 miles, the race was down to Rop and Lel, running side by side, their strides in the same cadence, a city block ahead of their fading pursuers.

"I thought he was real strong," Lel said, "so I was really scared. But I thought, maybe in my mind, I was going to win. I knew I was able to win."

There was also a little con job working."He told me he's the best," Lel said. "I said: `It's O.K. Let us maintain.'"They did maintain that pace until the 25th mile, deep into Central Park. There, Lel inched ahead, with Rop a stride behind.

Just before they left the park for the east end of Central Park South, Lel was perhaps two metres ahead when a strange thing happened. Just before a right turn back into the park for the final half-mile, Rop drifted to the left.

"I just wanted to go to the other side," Rop said. "I don't know. The mind told me that you are now tired, and really I was feeling tired."

That made the rest easy for Lel. He finished strong and, in his third marathon ever, he won for the first time. Rop hung on for second place.

Lel found the finish easier than he anticipated. "I was surprised no one pushed me," he said.

Rop said that he was confident before the race, but that Lel changed his mind.

"I didn't feel he was stronger," Rop said, "but after reaching a certain stage, I felt he was going to win because he was stronger. In the last mile, when he broke away, I knew he was going to win because I was feeling tired."

Lel won $100,000 for finishing first and an $8,000 bonus for bettering 2:11. He will receive a Smart coupe, a European car worth $14,000. And Fila, his main sponsor, will donate $100,000 to New York City parks because Lel and Margaret Okayo, two of its four runners here, swept the men's and women's races.

Lel owns a grocery store in Kenya. He said his family was taking care of it while he was running. With his winnings, he said, he would build a home for the family: mother, father, three sisters and six brothers.

"My family will be able to live at a higher standard of living now," he said.

With that in mind, and with the prestige of winning what he called the world's most important marathon, Lel was gracious, but he did not overdo it. When asked if he felt sorry when his friend Rop faded at the end, he smiled.

"No," he said. "I was very happy." New York Times News Service