Luka Cherono trains in the altitude of western Kenya. Elvira Kolpakova hails from a Russian town in the Ural Mountains. No wonder they seemed to be the only runners in the inaugural Baltimore Marathon Festival who didn't seem daunted by the city's rolling landscape.
Cherono and Kolpakova posted easy victories in the Comcast Baltimore Marathon yesterday. The former ditched countryman and favorite Sammy Kosgei with a stirring surge that began in the 14th mile, and the latter felt in control by the time she passed through Little Italy, in the second mile.
Kolpakova covered the 26-mile, 385-yard footrace in 2 hours, 52 minutes, 8 seconds, 2:37 in front of 25-year-old Baltimorean Melissa Rittenhouse. Cherono was the only person to better 2:20, returning to in 2:19.46, nearly a half mile ahead of Kosgei. Kolpakova, 29, has won an assortment of long-distance titles from Cleveland to Siberia, but it was the first marathon victory for Cherono, 24.
There were more than 6,500 entrants, and approximately 5,300 crossed the finish line before 4:30 p.m., eight hours after the race began.
With first-place prize money of $3,000 and most runners timid about an untested course, the infant event had no designs on attracting elite athletes with 2:10 credentials. It had star power up front, however. Josh Cox, the hottest marathoner in the field, passed on the companion 5K he had planned to enter and paced the marathon, where Fila teammates Kosgei and Cherono were the men to beat.
Cox grew impatient by the third mile, when he slowed to keep the men behind in touch. A dawdling succession of 5:30 and slower miles kept nine men in the lead pack as it skirted Herring Run Park, and six were still hanging with Cox into the 12th mile, as he led them on Walther Avenue and on Northern Parkway, two roads where they ran up hills and down.
"I've run faster on training runs," Cox said. "I think everyone was being cautious because of the hills. It was a pretty difficult course. It reminded me of Boston, with the rolling hills. At one point I said, 'If they're going to run that slow, I can get in a long run and win the race,' but then my better senses kicked in."
The serious work began, and men were shed from the pack one by one as it passed Mount Pleasant Golf Course near the halfway point. Local hero Chris Chattin couldn't maintain contact with the leaders. Russian Gennady Temnikov fell off the pace, then Kenyan Simon Cherokony. Cox dropped out at the 14th mile and gave a pat on the back to Kosgei, who would have had to hitch a ride with the pace car to catch Cherono.
"I just disappeared," Cherono said of his break from Kosgei, who has three career efforts under 2:16. "In my last marathon, I ran with him [Kosgei]. It was my time. He let me go ahead, but maybe he could come catch me. I was wearing a disguise, because it's only my second marathon and I feared he would catch me. I tried to move it."
Cherono turned a lead of a few paces into a 40-meter gap, and he blew away Kosgei with some brilliant racing on Lake Avenue and then south onto Roland Avenue. He covered the five miles from the 13th mile to the 18th in a blistering 24:28. He ran negative splits for the race - Cherono took nearly 1:12 to reach the halfway mark, and needed five fewer minutes to tour the second half of the course, which was mostly downhill.
That despite one last challenging climb, at the 20-mile mark leading into . Coming at "The Wall," where fatigue and psychological limits meet, it elicited oaths from everyone, from the 4:30 crowd to Kosgei. It also prohibited any late gear changes. The first five places were determined at the halfway mark.
"I was in no-man's land. I ran by myself the rest of the race," said Chattin, 37, who ran the old Maryland Marathon as a teen-ager. "I'm the first American, and the first local. "I can't complain."
Neither could Cherono, a slight figure who's 5 feet 5 and maybe 125 pounds.
Cherono showed great promise in 1998, when he finished third in the Tokyo Half Marathon, but he spent the next two years recuperating from a knee injury. Cherono said he's in 2:15 shape, and the slower time didn't detract from his win. Property is inexpensive in Kenya, and yesterday's winnings will make a nice down payment on a home he plans to buy in Baringo for his wife, Florence, and their three children.
"We have rented a house for five years," Cherono said. "I told myself, 'If I win, I get good money, buy some land.' Live without renting."
Temnikov and Kolpakova were brought to Baltimore by Konstantin Selinevich, a Gaithersburg-based talent scout.
The mother of a 6-year-old son, Kolpakova finished nearly 18 minutes off her personal best. She didn't even wear a watch on her jaunt. She latched on to a man who was running miles at about a 6:20 pace and she stayed there through 12 miles. Rittenhouse, a former Dayton runner who moved here two months ago to do a dietetic internship at the University of Maryland Medical School, waited until the 18th mile to move into second. Connie Buckwalter of Lancaster Pa., and Californian Deborah Leyh were the only other women to break three hours.
"Today was like a training run for her," said Selinevich, who interpreted for Kolpakova. "She ran a 90K [57 miles] in Siberia in June, and a 100K when she won the world ultramarathon in France. She'll run another marathon in another two months. It's hard to race so much and stay in shape. We felt it would be nice if there was no competition here, but we understand that it's not good for the event."