BOSTON -- When Kenyan Elijah Lagat began running eight years ago, he wasn't thinking of winning marathons or making Olympic teams. He just didn't want to die.
''I was not an athlete -- I was fat,'' said the 5-foot-6 Lagat, who in 1992 weighed about 160 pounds and was often having difficulty breathing. ''My doctor told me that if I continued like that, I could die because of a heart problem, so I started to jog. Then I started to compete. It was just for fun, not to be a professional, but in the process I found out that I was fast.''
So fast that Lagat -- now 126 pounds -- won the Boston Marathon in his first attempt, completing the windswept course Monday in 2 hours 9 minutes 47 seconds and a stride ahead of Ethiopian Gezahenge Abera, who was scored with the same time. Kenya's Moses Tanui followed three seconds later to give the 104-year-old marathon its closest finish ever, a feat echoed by the women when Kenyan Catherine Ndereba sprinted ahead of Kyrgyzstan's Irina Bogacheva and favorite Fatuma Roba to win in 2:26:11.
Two years ago, Ndereba would have been just as unlikely a winner as Lagat -- she had just given birth to a daughter and was nowhere near racing shape -- but like so many of the 17,813 people who battled through the 26.2 mile course Monday, she found her body was able to achieve more than she ever thought possible.
''I'm very surprised to get number one in Boston but I have been working very hard and praying for this,'' said Ndereba. ''That's why I was shedding tears as they were playing the national anthem of Kenya. I was overwhelmed with happiness.''
Ndereba, 27, is the first Kenyan woman to finish first here, a sharp contrast to the Kenyan men, who now have won an unprecedented 10 consecutive marathons. This race has become such a part of Kenya's running landscape that Monday's results will help determine which men will compete in the Sydney Olympics this fall. It is not as clear whether Ndereba's finish will help her make the women's Olympic squad.
As the runners gathered before racetime in the tiny suburb of Hopkinton, Mass., a 13-mph wind made 44-degree temperatures feel more like 26 degrees, leaving throngs of runners scurrying for hats, gloves and even makeshift garbage-bag wraps.
As dark rain clouds tumbled through the sky several hours later, many were still shivering as they hobbled over the finish line, too tired to smile but too proud to sit down. Even the elite runners struggled with the weather, some misjudging the winds that kept flags jutting straight toward them throughout the day.
''The wind was very strong all the way through,'' Lagat said. ''I tried to break away (earlier in the race), but after going in front it was too hard with the wind, and I had to go back and stay behind the other athletes.''
Most of the elite men spent the first half of the marathon en masse, feeling out both the course and each other. A group of about eight finally moved ahead around the 18-mile mark, and by the 22-mile mark, the lead group dwindled to three, leaving 1999 champion Joseph Chebet out of contention. By the final mile, Lagat, Abera and Tanui were running in a line, although Abera later contended the Kenyans were kicking and pushing him in an attempt to box him in. (Lagat and Tanui denied those charges, with Tanui claiming it was Abera doing the kicking.) Regardless, it was Tanui who made the first push to win, sprinting ahead with about 200 yards to go.
It was a similar move to the kick that won him this marathon in 1998, when he came from behind to best Chebet. But this time, Tanui started his sprint a little too early, and Lagat made his triumphant kick just as his countryman was tiring.
''Starting my kick too soon was my mistake,'' Tanui said. ''I felt strong but got nervous, and the wind was too much.''
The women's race was just as close, courtesy of a major second-half push by Ndereba and an even stronger final sprint by Bogacheva. Their finishes seemed to surprise Roba, who had been trying to become the first person to win this race four times in a row. Roba had led comfortably through most of the race, but Ndereba joined her around the 21-mile mark and spurted ahead with about a mile to go. Roba was also unable to fend off Bogacheva, who slipped ahead of her by only hundredths of a second.
''Yesterday when I was planning the race, I knew I could be a factor at the finish,'' Bogacheva said through an interpreter. ''But I have never run a race where the finish was so close.''
Jean Driscoll of Champaign, Ill., won the women's wheelchair race in 2:00:53. It was her eighth title but her first since 1996. The woman she edged out Monday, Australia's Louise Sauvage had won the previous three years. Franz Nietlispach of Switzerland won the men's wheelchair race, his fifth, in 1:33:32.
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