From its sunny start in Hopkinton, Monday's Boston Marathon looked a lot like the East African championships. Juma Ikangaa, a Tanzanian army captain, hit the halfway point in Wellesley first, in 1:02:23, a pace that, if maintained, would have yielded a startling 2:04:46 at the finish, 2:04 faster than the world record held by Ethiopia's Belaine Densimo. And Ikangaa wasn't alone. On his shoulder were Ibrahim Hussein of Kenya, who last year had outsprinted Ikangaa to win the closest race ever in Boston by one second, and Abebe Mekonnen of Ethiopia, Densimo's training partner.
The 5'2", 130-pound Mekonnen was the mystery man in this year's race. He was to have run in Boston last year, but he and the rest of the Ethiopian team pulled out when they were mistakenly told that a South African would be running. Mekonnen, 26, was not in Seoul, either, because Ethiopia was one of the five countries boycotting the Olympics in sympathy with North Korea.
One thing that was known about Mekonnen was that he had averaged 2:08:34 for his three marathons last year, and in his most recent outing—in Beijing on Oct. 16—he won in 2:07:35. Still, one had to question how he would fare on the hilly Boston course. One also had to question Mekonnen's common sense. On Thursday he and his teammates were training as if the race were weeks away, running 15 miles of fartlek along the Charles River.
"He'll exhaust himself before the race, trying to impress the press," said Hussein scornfully. It was Hussein, however, who seemed to tire when the runners rolled toward the winding hills of Newton. At 16 miles, he dropped away from the leaders, leaving Ikangaa and Mekonnen the agonizing task of feeling each other out.
Behind them, in a mildly disappointing women's competition, Ingrid Kristiansen of Norway, who hoped to break both her own world record of 2:21:06 and the 2:20 barrier, passed the halfway point in 1:09:34, but she, too, wilted in the Newton hills. Kristiansen, 33, hit the tape in 2:24:33, some 4� minutes ahead of New Zealand's Marguerite Buist, who finished second.
Ikangaa's glistening brow was cut vertically with a single deep furrow as he pushed the pace going past the huge crowds in Brookline. More than once Mekonnen surged to the front, only to be passed again by Ikangaa. Before the race, Ikangaa had sounded like Yogi Berra, as he described the lesson he had learned from last year's close ending: "Until you come to the finish line, you can't say you've won." He fully realized that he could not allow the race to come down to a sprint again.
But he could not shake Mekonnen. "I know Juma very well," Mekonnen said afterward. "I have run against him many times. He's a good runner, but he has not got a good finish. I followed until the last two kilometers." At 24� miles, just shy of Kenmore Square, with no visible effort—only an increase in cadence—Mekonnen strode away from Ikangaa. His move was swift and final. He ran the last mile in 4:53, hitting the tape in 2:09:06, 48 seconds ahead of Ikangaa, an astonishing margin considering it was all gained in the last 1� miles.
Mekonnen is a mystery no more. He grew up on his family's farm in the mountainous Shoa Province of central Ethiopia. He's the first Ethiopian to win at Boston, though he isn't the first to try. In fact, Mekonnen was born in 1963, four months before his renowned countryman, Abebe Bikila, the 1960 and '64 Olympic marathon champion, failed in his only run at Boston. Bikila went out at world-record pace, too, but lost his legs in the hills at 18 miles and finished fifth.
Mekonnen's triumph completed an impressive two days of marathoning for the Ethiopians. In a resounding show of strength, they swept three important races. On Sunday, Keleke Metaferia won the World Cup in Milan in 2:10:28, and Densimo won the Rotterdam Marathon in 2:08:39. So the great Bikila seems to have a number of worthy heirs, and his namesake may be the best of the lot. Reflecting on his country's trio of triumphs, Mekonnen said with pride, "Together they are a great victory for Ethiopia."