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Weldon Kirui aims to become first three-time winner at L.A. Marathon

L.A. Marathon essentials
Weldon Kirui of Kenya was the first to cross the finish line at last year’s L.A. Marathon.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

It was a couple of months ago that Weldon Kirui struggled at a half-marathon in Houston, finishing well behind the lead pack. Disappointed, the Kenyan long-distance runner looked ahead to his next race.

“I know what I need to do for L.A.,” he told his agent.

If anyone understands the course and conditions in Los Angeles it would be Kirui, who will start this weekend’s L.A. Marathon looking to become the event’s first three-time winner.

After victories last year and in 2016, he has made himself right at home in Southern California.

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“It’s a very fun course to race,” the 30-year-old said through an interpreter. “I know where the good parts are, where the harder parts are.”

The 34th Los Angeles Marathon gets underway early Sunday »

Nearly 24,000 runners are expected to participate in this year’s edition of the marathon, which dates back more than three decades to the afterglow of the 1984 Summer Olympics.

At several points in its history, organizers have talked about rivaling the big boys in New York, Boston and Tokyo. But the elite marathon calendar is packed, and elbowing for higher status requires six-figure prize money, more than L.A. has been willing to offer.

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This year, the winner’s purse will be $23,000 for first place in each division.

“I think L.A. has gone up and down,” said Robert Johnson, co-founder of LetsRun.com, an influential web site that covers elite running. “It’s definitely, at this stage, a minor-league race.”

L.A. Marathon
Kenya's Weldon Kirui finishes first in L.A. Marathon in 2018.
(Christina House / Los Angeles TImes)

But as former Boston Marathon winner and “Runner’s World” writer Amby Burfoot said: “I always tell marathon race directors, don’t try to be Boston … be the best at what your local marathon can offer.”

Under the stewardship of Frank McCourt, the former Dodgers owner who purchased operating rights to the event in 2008, L.A. appears to have settled into a comfortable niche.

The annual race draws massive crowds of runners who are attracted by a “stadium to the sea” course that begins at Dodger Stadium and weaves past various landmarks on the way to Santa Monica.

Though men’s winners have not consistently broken the benchmark of 2 hours, 10 minutes, the marathon has nonetheless drawn elite competition from around the world.

Juan Luis Barrios of Mexico and a number of Kirui’s countrymen, including Lawi Kiptui and John Korir, are expected to race on the men’s side this weekend.

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L.A. Marathon
 
(Los Angeles Times)

The women’s field will feature Belaynesh Fikadu of Ethiopia, Lucy Karimi of Kenya and Olha Sktypak of Ukraine.

As the defending champion, Kirui owns a personal best of 2:09:06, recorded at the 2012 Eindhoven Marathon in the Netherlands, and victories in Kenya, Austria and the U.S.

The first time he won in L.A., in 2016, the performance was a bit overshadowed because the U.S. Olympic team trials were held downtown the day before. Last year, Kirui put his growing course knowledge to use.

“The beginning part is more hilly, has more turns to it,” he said. “So if I don’t get off to a good start … then I may not function as well as I hope.”

A fairly conservative lead pack helped him push past a spot late in the race where he had faded in other years. This time around, that frustrating performance in Houston motivated Kirui to shift his training to the town of Kericho, in the Kenyan highlands a few hours from his home in Bomet.

“I feel I’ve really prepared well,” he said.

Mild weather in the L.A. forecast could translate into faster times. A lot depends on the strategy that frontrunners adopt as the race progresses.

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“I just need to play it by ear and see how the other competitors are running,” Kirui said. “Then I will adjust.”

History suggests that he might have a few ideas about where to make his move.

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david.wharton@latimes.com

Follow @LAtimesWharton on Twitter


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