Par for the Course

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Metropolitan Transit authority is tunneling under Hollywood Boulevard to run a subway, but better the Corps of Engineers is turned loose on the street.

Level those hills. Smooth out the pavement, because it's the only way somebody is going to run a sub-2-hour 10-minute Los Angeles Marathon.

Edition XIII on Sunday showed what happens when a legitimate elite field tackles the course. Tanzania's Zebedayo Bayo showed his heels to the race's other 19,711 runners, finishing in 2:11:21, the sixth-fastest Los Angeles Marathon run and the third-fastest winning time. But it was 1:21--light years in running terms--from the race's goal of 2:10, and only four seconds faster than Kenya's Jonathan Ndambuki.

Bayo earned $30,000 in cash and a $24,150 car, as did Lornah Kiplagat, who won the women's race for the second year in a row, this time learning what it was like to break the tape at the finish line.

She ran 2:34:03, a slow time in a race in which nobody seemed willing to take charge.

Bayo's victory came in the final half a mile, when he overtook Ndambuki, who had pulled a calf muscle while running in the lead.

The two had separated themselves from a pack that numbered Bayo, five Kenyans and two Mexicans, running along Melrose Avenue, Vine and Orange streets and Hollywood Boulevard, in miles 15-20.

"It's a very hard course because of the hills," said Kenya's Zack Kunyiha, who was with that pack and then fell back, finishing 10th in 2:15:46.

"I think the course would be better to start with the hills because when you get to these hills, you are so tired."

It showed. After turning mile 14 in 4:51, the pack went through miles of 5:25, 5:18, 5:20, 5:24 and 5:09, before starting downhill on Hollywood for a 4:53 run for mile 21.

Through that point, the Kenyans and Bayo were running together, passing occasional liquid refreshment to each other, chatting a bit and making sure that Mexico's Alejandro Cruz, who finished fifth, and Isidro Rico, who was seventh, felt like interlopers.

Then Bayo and Ndambuki, both 21 and the youngest runners in the elite field, pulled away from the rest, running in lock step for a mile until first Bayo, then Ndambuki surged to the front.

"I tried to kick it in the last mile," Ndambuki said. "But the last mile I was affected by the muscle pull. The other guys had dropped off and I was left with that guy from Tanzania."

And left the guy from Tanzania. And then was left by the guy from Tanzania.

"I had confidence that I had a good enough kick" to win, said Bayo through Kenya's Simon Lopuyet, who finished third in 2:11:41, then did extra duty in interpreting Bayo's Swahili into English.

One of the reasons was Bayo's warm-up race, in which he finished third in the fastest half-marathon run, two weeks ago in Lisbon. Bayo ran 1:00:23 in that race, in which Antonio Pinta set a world record at 59:43.

Ndambuki also had a half-marathon warmup, running 1:03:05 in San Diego in January.

"I was feeling I had won the race because the gap between us was so long," Ndambuki said of the nearly 100 yards that Bayo had to make up in the race's final mile. "But I knew he had a good kick."

There remained one trial left for Bayo, who had spent more than two hours dutifully following a police vehicle. A block from the finish line, the police pulled off the course and Bayo figured that was the way to go. It took a bit of yelling and coaxing from a throng to send him through the tape.

At about that point, Kiplagat had decided to stretch things out in the women's race, which the competitors called "tactical," another word for slow.

Maura Viceconte of Italy called it both.

"It was a very tactical race that at the beginning was very slow," she said through an interpreter. "I was waiting for somebody to make a good pace, and nobody had the interest in making it a good pace."

A six-pack of women--interspersed with a few bothersome men--ran through the race's middle portion, with Viceconte showing the way much of the time, but with Kiplagat, Kenya's Hellen Kamaiyo, French transplant Irina Kazakova, Russia's Svetlana Zakharova and Moldova's Valentina Enaki running in a group.

"I think the field was at the same level and everyone was afraid to go faster," Kiplagat said.

At 20 miles, Viceconte tried to pull away, but "Lornah was too fast," she said.

"I tried to move after 20 miles, but everyone was very strong," Kiplagat said. "Then I tried at 22 miles, and still everybody was very strong."

Just past mile 23, Kiplagat tried one more time and was able to pull away from Viceconte and the rest, taking a lead of about 100 yards into the 24th mile. Viceconte closed a bit, but the rest of the field was done.

For Kiplagat, who had been nursing a cold for the past two days, the race was poetic justice.

"It was really a good feeling for me to break the tape because of what happened last year," she said in addressing the 1997 race in which she was declared the winner after finishing two seconds behind Nadezhda Ilyina, who was disqualified for cutting the course.

"I feel like I'm at home. I had lots of people calling out to me."

In part, that's because she was the first defending champion to win since Nancy Ditz took the first two Los Angeles Marathons. And no man has won the race twice in a row.

The runners were satisfied with the times.

"I was happy because I broke my personal record," said Bayo, though at only 21 and with only two previous marathons--one finished--that is a somewhat nebulous achievement.

But L.A. Marathon President Bill Burke--while happy with the effort of a field that threw the first real test at the course, which was re-worked last year--was not as satisfied with the clock.

"The course won't allow [a 2:10 time]," he said. "Do we change the course? As of an hour ago, that was under discussion."

So race officials will take another look at the course, to see what can be done about the hills in Hollywood. Maybe the tunnel under Hollywood Boulevard?

The runners will just take their checks.

"I like the course very much," Ndambuki said.

Sunday, he liked it $20,000 worth, the reward for finishing second in the seventh-fastest time run in the race.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

MEN'S WINNER

Zebedayo Bayo, Tanzania

2:11:21

WOMEN'S WINNER

Lornah Kiplagat, Kenya

2:34:03

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