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Kenya’s Wesley Korir wins L.A. Marathon in record time

The Kenyan distance runner stereotypes don’t apply to Wesley Korir.

He trains at low altitudes. He has mostly run five-kilometer races. He enjoys Subway tuna sandwiches before races.

“Six inches,” Korir said. “I can’t finish a foot-long.”

Korir had little trouble polishing off his more renowned competitors Monday morning in the Los Angeles Marathon, winning in a record 2 hours 8 minutes 24 seconds amid ideal conditions that quashed concerns about the latest starting date in the race’s history.

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It was a stunning display for a runner competing in his second marathon. Korir broke Benson Cherono’s 2006 race record of 2:08:40 and logged the fastest time ever for a 26.2-mile run in California.

“At the start of the race I thought my chance of winning was zero,” Korir said.

It might be time for the former University of Louisville track star to adjust his expectations.

After receiving some encouragement from countryman Laban Kipkemboi, Korir, 26, pulled away from race favorite Tariku Jufar of Ethiopia on Olympic Boulevard in the 24th mile.

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“I told him, ‘If you are still strong, keep pushing because you can break the course record,’ ” Kipkemboi said.

Jufar finished second in 2:09:32 and Kipkemboi was third in 2:10:29 on a day runners collected $138,000 in time bonuses.

Korir tallied an impressive winner’s haul of $160,000 and a 2009 Honda Accord EX-L. He received $20,000 for winning, $40,000 for clocking under 2:09 and $100,000 for becoming the first runner -- male or female -- to finish. The men started 16:57 behind the women in an effort to level the field.

Shortly after he overtook Jufar, Korir also passed women’s leader Tatiana Petrova of Russia in the 24th mile. Petrova won the women’s race in 2:25:29, the third-fastest time in race history. Aaron Gordian of Mexico won the wheelchair race in 1:31:19.

Paul Kosgei of Kenya, who finished 11th among the men’s runners, was hospitalized because of dehydration, a race official said, but he was expected to recover and there were no other reports of serious incidents.

Typically run on the first Sunday in March, the race was pushed back to Memorial Day as the result of a decree by City Hall officials who bowed to pressure from religious leaders concerned that access to churches would be hindered by streets clogged with runners.

The temperature was not unbearable as some had feared on a cool, overcast morning. It was 59 degrees at the start of the women’s race, with the temperature reaching 62 degrees by the time Korir crossed the finish line.

“The weather was close to ideal,” Petrova said through an interpreter.

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The course was a loop route that had generated the previous fastest times in the marathon’s history when it was last run in 2006. It started at 6th and Figueroa streets, ventured as far west as La Cienega Boulevard and concluded at 5th and Flower streets.

Korir grew up in poverty in a Kenyan village but always dreamed of going to college. He couldn’t afford to go to school in Kenya, where there are no athletic scholarships.

“You either run professionally or go to school,” Korir said.

So Korir accepted a scholarship to Louisville, dismissing the concerns of a skeptical mother. He finished third in the 5,000 meters at the NCAA track championships in 2007 and began running longer events last year after obtaining an undergraduate degree in biology.

He finished fourth in the 2008 Chicago Marathon -- his first marathon -- despite not even being allowed to start the race at the front of the pack with the elite runners. Now he has to be considered among the best in the world.

“My agent told me, ‘Don’t think about the time, don’t think about the challenge, just go and give 100%,’ ” Korir said of his strategy Monday. “That’s what I did.”

--

ben.bolch@latimes.com

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