Rarely have the magnificent distance runners of Africa come to Boston for the marathon. Their only serious previous assault on the race was in 1963, when Abebe Bikila and Mamo Wolde of Ethiopia blazed through 18 miles on a world-record pace before fading in the long, tough Newton hills. But on Monday a new generation of Africans came to Massachusetts, and from the very start in cool, drizzly Hopkinton it was clear that they would make the 92nd Boston Marathon a fast one—no matter what the risks.
Taking turns at the front of a star-studded lead pack, Tanzanians and Kenyans carried the race through five miles at a crazy 2:04:20 pace. "Sometimes I think the Africans don't realize what it means, the marathon," said Orlando Pizzolato of Italy before the race. "It is a long way, and you must run it carefully. But the Africans, they push. They open a lead and then push more. It is one way to win the marathon, but it is the most dangerous way."
At stake was more than just $313,500 in prize money, two automobiles and the traditional laurel wreaths. In an unprecedented circumstance, the race served as an Olympic trial by which Kenya, Tanzania, Great Britain, Ireland, Finland, Italy and Mexico would choose anywhere from one to all three of their Olympic marathoners. Four-time Boston winner Bill Rodgers of the U.S. called the field "the best there's ever been in the 92 years of the race."
At 16 miles the pack had thinned to seven runners, led by Juma Ikangaa, 30, a Tanzanian army captain, and Kenya's Ibrahim Hussein, 29, a former University of New Mexico steeplechaser and last fall's New York City Marathon champ. Not surprisingly, nary a U.S. runner was in sight. Virtually all the best Americans had skipped Boston to prepare for either the U.S. Men's Olympic Trials on Sunday in Jersey City, N.J., or the women's trials on May 1 in Pittsburgh. "It's a blessing in disguise," said New York City Marathon director Fred Lebow before the race. "The Americans wouldn't finish in the top 10 here—maybe not in the top 20. It would be a tremendous embarrassment."
The field might have been even more formidable. Ethiopia had promised to send part of its redoubtable team to Boston but pulled out a week before the race. The top Ethiopians showed up instead at Sunday's Rotterdam Marathon, where one of them, 30-year-old Belaine Densimo, made history. Running on a cool but humid day over a flat, fast course, Densimo, a 5'7", 137-pounder with just three years' marathoning experience, shattered Carlos Lopes's three-year-old world best of 2:07:12 with a clocking of 2:06:50. Runner-up Ahmed Salah of Djibouti also surpassed the old mark with a time of 2:07:07. Those performances gave the field in Boston plenty to think about.
In the Newton hills the lead pack shrank to four: Ikangaa, Hussein, El-Mustafa Nechchadi of Morocco and last-minute entry John Treacy of Ireland. The rain had stopped, and the pace had slowed as the leaders ran up the wet pavement of Heartbreak Hill four abreast, each waiting for another to make a move. Atop Heartbreak, just beyond the 21-mile mark, Ikangaa and Hussein surged, shedding Nechchadi and opening 10 yards on Treacy. The race was now a tactical duel. It would soon produce the best finish in Boston history.
Through Cleveland Circle and onto Beacon Street, Ikangaa and Hussein ran hip to hip, cheered on by crowds that had not seen so heated a battle since 1982, when Alberto Salazar held off Dick Beardsley to win by two seconds. Despite their intense duel, Ikangaa and Hussein looked smooth and relaxed as they sailed along. Their countries are neighbors in equatorial East Africa, and both men have spent much time training at altitude—Ikangaa in the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro, Hussein near Mount Kenya and in Albuquerque, where he has lived since 1980.
The 5'7", 126-pound Hussein had not run a race of any length since winning the Honolulu Marathon in 2:18:26 in December. For four months he had focused all his energies on Boston, almost always training alone. By contrast, the 5'4", 128-pound Ikangaa was running his fifth marathon in 12 months, a daunting task. In February he had placed second at Tokyo in 2:08:42 to lock up a spot on his country's Olympic team. He was running Boston, he said, to see if he could match that time after so brief a recovery.
As they neared the final mile, the two men were still dead even. "With one mile to go," Hussein said later, "I said, I think it is going to come down to a 100-meter kick."
Turning sharply onto Boylston Street, Ikangaa cut in front of Hussein and sprinted down the final 600-yard straightaway. His arms were loose, his face calm. He had a stride on Hussein and seemed headed for victory. "I was waiting, waiting, waiting," Hussein would say afterward.