Okayo breaks course record


Margaret Okayo raises her arms as she finishes first in the New York Marathon . — Pic. AFP-

As Margaret Okayo of Kenya traversed the humpbacked span of the Queensboro Bridge, crossing into Manhattan, she reached at Mile 16 the most alluring and dangerous point on the New York City Marathon course.

The crowds along First Avenue are loud and assuring, but 10 miles remain in the race. Many a runner has fallen victim to this siren song of encouragement, picking up speed too soon, only to grow exhausted before the finish.

A standard warning for New York is this: Don't get carried away on First Avenue. But this is where Okayo began her victory on that Sunday, making a move as she came off the bridge, running the second half of the race considerably faster than the first half and breaking her own course record for women by nearly two minutes to win in two hours 22 minutes 31 seconds.

This was Okayo's second victory in New York in three years. Her winning time was made even more remarkable by her resolve in temperatures above 60 degrees, considered warm for a marathon. Her victory earned $160,000 in prize and bonus money. A portion of it, she said, would go to orphans.

At 4 feet 11 inches and 85 pounds, her hair cropped short, her arms swinging across her chest, her stride light-footed, Okayo is tough and unrelenting. A year ago, she suffered back spasms at the start here and still finished fifth before being treated at a hospital.

She ran the second half in 1:10:27 after covering the first half in 1:12:04, shattering her previous course record, 2:24:21 in 2001. She also holds the course record for women at the Boston Marathon in 2:20:43.

"When I set my record in 2001, I started pushing from 16,'' said Okayo, 27, who works in the prison system in Kenya and trains much of the year in Brescia, Italy, with Dr. Gabriele Rosa and the Fila running group. "I said, `Let me start from that mark, let me see what I can make again.' I saw a lot of people cheering. I became fresh again.''

It hardly seemed to matter that Okayo's main challengers at 16 miles were Catherine Ndereba of Kenya, who won the women's marathon at the world track and field championships in Paris two months ago, and Lornah Kiplagat, a native Kenyan who now competes for the Netherlands and who ran a spectacular 10,000-metre race to finish fourth in Paris. Okayo hit the gas pedal, running Mile 17 in 5:05, then made another move on a slight downhill during Mile 18. She ran apart from the others, near the side of the road, not wanting anyone to clip her heels, as had happened early in the race. She kept pushing hard with a blistering pace, apparently believing that no one was stronger or fitter.

"I didn't know I was going to break the record,'' Okayo said. "I was just going.''

Nor did she look back at those chasing her. "I didn't know if they were following me,'' Okayo said. "I said, `Let me look forward.''' She did, running Mile 21 in a punishing 5:02, opening a lead of 15 seconds. Eventually, the margin grew to more than half a minute. Ndereba, not fully recovered from the world championships, finished second in 2:23:04, and Kiplagat took third in 2:23:43. The top three times all fell below the previous course record.

"Margaret's success comes from patience, which every great marathoner has always had,'' said Deena Drossin Kastor, the top American women's marathoner, who served as a pacesetter. "She executes her strengths when the finish line is in site. She seems to do it every time. She gets in a nice rhythm, but she can really up the tempo when she needs to.''

Marla Runyan of Eugene, Orelando, who finished fourth a year ago, was considered a contender, but she and Ndereba bumped at a water stop at eight miles, and later Runyan grew extremely fatigued. She stopped several times and finished 20th in 2:45:12.

"My legs were so sore, I felt I couldn't pick them up,'' Runyan said, adding that she needed rest after a long season. Sylvia Mosqueda, 37, of Los Angeles was the top American finisher in the women's race. She took 10th in 2:33:10, her personal best on a course that is undulating, with its bridges, its slight inclines and its rolling hills in Central Park. New York is considered a difficult course, but it suits Okayo's power and determination. On a flat course, Rosa said, she might have run several minutes under 2:20.

Okayo is a member of the Kisii tribe, while most of the Kenyan runners are Kalenjin. She said she began running at age 13, intrigued by her father, Ibrahim, who chased giraffes through the forest near their village, Masaba.

She may be chasing an Olympic gold medal after running an average pace of 5:26 here. Such an impressive performance on a warm day might put her in contention in the women's marathon at the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, where the course is largely uphill and unshaded and figures to be contested in brutal heat.

Paula Radcliffe of England is the women's world-record holder in 2:15:25, but she has run only the flat, cool-weather courses in Chicago and London, where she set the record. For all of its success in the marathon, no Kenyan man or woman has won the race at the Olympics.

"I don't know if I will be in the Olympics, but if I am I will try my best,'' Okayo said.

New York Times News Service