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Kenyan marathon runner wants a step up from runner-up

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NEW YORK - Susan Chepkemei weighs 97 pounds, but she is far from a weakling. She amply demonstrated that one year ago, when she went shoe-to-shoe and singlet-to-singlet with world record-holder Paula Radcliffe in the closest finish in the annals of the New York City Marathon.

A 30-year-old Kenyan, Chepkemei was three seconds behind, crossing in two hours, 23 minutes, 13 seconds. She described herself as "pleased and happy because I tried my best." Still, she would not mind at all moving up a place, not so much because of the record $130,000 that will go to the winner, but because it would put an end to this rubber-soled bridesmaid business once and for all.

Chepkemei has been the runnerup in New York twice, having also placed second in 2001. She has won four world championship half-marathon medals - none of them gold. She has finished second in Berlin, and third, fourth and fifth in London.

"Maybe my day will come one day, one time," Chepkemei said. "That is my dream."

"Everyone knows how dangerous Susan is, and everyone's waiting for her to win her first," said Mary Wittenberg, race director and CEO of the New York Road Runners.

Wittenberg believes Sunday's race may come down to Chepkemei and Lornah Kiplagat, a Kenyan by birth who is now a naturalized citizen of the Netherlands.

Chepkemei grew up in the Rift Valley district of West Pokot, near the Uganda border. It is the same area that produced former New York champion Tegla Loroupe. According to Focus on Africans, a program of track and field's international governing body, the IAAF, developed by John Manners of Montclair, N.J., Chepkemei's Pokot tribe lives in among the most traditional and least Westernized parts of the country. Chepkemei's father had four wives and 31 children.

Chepkemei's talent for running was spotted by a Dutch doctor when she was 9, and she ran her first international race three years later. At 15, she placed third in the world junior cross-country championships in France.

Chepkemei, for her part, does not seem to be even a little upset about her near-misses. She watched replays of last year's race twice, but doesn't second-guess anything.

"If I could think like that, the motivation for me would go down," she said. She said she doesn't go to the start line thinking of any one competitor, or even about winning. She views the marathon as a race against herself, and the limits of her own body, all 97 pounds of it.

"I try all my best, all the time," she said. "I am concentrated only on running."


(c) 2005, New York Daily News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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