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Monday, Sept. 3, 2007

ODDS AND EVENS

Ndereba, Tosa prove worthy medal winners in marathon


OSAKA — Two storylines unfolded on this brilliant summer morning along the streets of this lovely city, and both had happy endings — good drama, too — for the difficult discipline of marathon running.

Ed Odeven

First and foremost, there was the cool, composed, go-with-the-flow triumph of Catherine "The Great" Ndereba.

Ndereba's victory in the 42.195-km race earned her a permanent spot in the annals of the sport's all-time greats. When you mention the world's greatest contemporary female athletes, you cannot exclude her. Ndereba has, you ought to know, now earned a top-three finish in 17 of the 18 marathons she's competed in.

For Japan, the race produced a different narrative: finally, a medal and a collective sigh of relief. Reiko Tosa took home the bronze in the first event of the final day at the 11th IAAF World Athletics Championships.

By doing so, Japan avoids the embarrassment of being shut out of medal contention. Canada was the last host nation at the world championships to not earn a medal in 2001.

Tosa was inspired and determined to give Japanese fans something to smile about.

"In the final stage of the race I was able to come through because the cheering by fans around the course," Tosa said. "They were really loud. I would like to thank them all. I'm relieved. I did not know whether I would be able to medal or not. But I was not going to give up."

By the way, can the IAAF award two bronze medals? The Japanese fans deserve a medal, too, for showing up for the 7 a.m. race — indeed, sleep is usually a top priority for many people at that hour on Sunday morning — and offering never-wavering support for Tosa and her four compatriots on the race course.

News photo
Kenya's Catherine Ndereba celebrates as she wins gold in the women's marathon Sunday. KYODO PHOTO

"Although the pace was slow, I want to run (an) aggressive race," said Tosa, who clocked 2 hours, 30 minutes and 55 seconds. "I tried to stay in contact with the leader. My thought was on a medal hunt. I kept on telling myself that this is not an international championship race."

But it was. And it was the type of competition Tosa should be comfortable competing in. Her performance record indicates as much. A brief recap: She was the silver medalist at the 2001 World Championships in Edmonton, Alberta; she finished fifth in the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens; and she was No. 5 in the 1999 World Half Marathon Championships on the Italian isle of Sicily.

Ndereba ran a season-best time of 2:30:37. Zhou Chunxiu, the Chinese woman with the world's fastest time of 2007 (2:19:51), placed eight seconds back. Zhou admitted she was slowed down by a sore foot over the final 2 km.

Kiyoko Shimahara placed sixth, Mari Ozaki was 14th, Yumiko Hara, the 2007 Osaka International Ladies Marathon winner, took 18th and Yasuko Hashimoto 23rd. Japan's runners represented well, providing a fine example to the country's people about the value of hard work.

It wasn't necessarily the pace Ndereba ran, but when she made her forceful move to the front that mattered most.

During the race — one in which Tosa, Hara, Shimahara and Hashimoto were consistently near the front — Ndereba never lost sight of the other runners. She was always within a few meters from the leader.

Then she became the leader.

"After 40 kilometers I felt I had something left. I tried to push it a little bit harder and I was able to maintain the pace up to the finish line," Ndereba said.

In the final 1.5 km, Tosa increased her speed, enabling her to get past China's Zhu Xiaolin and reward the crowd for its loyal support. Tosa ended the race in rapid fashion, surpassing Zhu, the fourth-placer finisher, comfortably.

January's Osaka International Ladies Marathon was a warmup meet for many of the top runners, but it didn't simulate the conditions of the sweltering September heat.

"The Osaka marathon in the summer and winter are two different things because in winter, in January, I ran the whole race with my gloves on and with something underneath my singlet," Ndereba said.

"But, today, if I had been able to run naked I would have. Unfortunately, I could not because I knew that my daughter (10-year-old Jane) was watching and she would not like it if mum was running without clothes on!"

Paula Radcliffe, the world record-holder and 2005 World Championships gold medalist, opted to skip the Osaka meet. She recently had a baby and has been recovering from injuries.

For Ndereba, it was the slowest marathon of her brilliant career, but nonetheless the victory provided incredible satisfaction.

"Some people said after I did not win in Athens or Helsinki that Catherine is finished," Ndereba told reporters. "But I showed that with the help of God that I can win again."

Clearly, Ndereba will make headlines again for all the right reasons. And don't believe you've heard the last from Tosa, a tiny runner with the determination of a great champion.



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