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Marathon Winner's Secret: High-Altitude Runs in Kenya

REHEARSALS for the Boston Marathon offer a riveting spectacle to residents of this lush hilltop town beneath the snowy slopes of Mt. Kenya.

Each afternoon, lean, young runners thunder down its packed-mud roads. Villagers bent under burdens of firewood and stalks of green bananas stop to stare as the pack, led by a featherweight wonder called Cosmas Ndeti, flashes past.

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Mr. Ndeti and fellow Kenyan runners are preparing for the Boston Marathon with a grueling month of high-altitude workouts in this rural burg just below the equator. Ndeti has won first place in Boston for the past three years. He's favored to win again on April 15, the run's 100th anniversary.

"Boston means a lot to me," Ndeti told the Monitor. "I want to see how many times I can win, and how many times I can run; even when I'm l00. If I'll be able to just run the last l0 meters, I'll do it."

Ndeti glides along the course, his boyish physique matched by an impish grin and a peach-fuzz mustache. A born-again Christian, and the son of a farmer who provided for three wives and 36 children, Ndeti has bounded far from home. He's placed in meets from South Korea to Bulgaria, and jogged through Washington with President Clinton last year to celebrate his third consecutive Boston win.

"It's simple: I love to run," he says.

In a dirt-splattered four-wheel-drive vehicle, Ndeti's coach and uncle, Boniface Nzioka, follows the practice session. The fast-talking trainer has mapped out this 36 kilometer (21.6 miles) route - a twisting course, cutting through hillsides of tea and bananas, down muddy escarpments and up punishing inclines. The circuit makes Boston's 26.2-mile marathon, with its notorious Heartbreak Hill, look lenient.

Coach Nzioka takes credit for discovering Ndeti when he started running competitively at age 14.

"He ran barefoot," Nzioka recalls. "When I gave him shoes, he didn't like it. He said they made him too heavy."

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Ndeti prefers to train only once each day with a two- to three-hour run before sunset. His coach chalks up the runner's success to high-altitude workouts that emphasize endurance rather than speed. The trainer says Ndeti benefited from a typical rural Kenyan childhood. "Kids run for several kilometers to school and back here, up and down these big hills. So their body forms a habit of knowing they have to run," he adds.

Ndeti puts it a bit differently. He says as a child, he didn't like to get up for school. "My brothers and sisters used to try to wake me up, but they couldn't," Ndeti says.

"I'd finally get up and be left behind, and would start crying. Then I'd run and run and found I could catch up with them," he says.

Ndeti still lives near his childhood home in a town called Machakos, a farming community encircled by rolling hills. The tiny living room of his modest cement-block house is jammed with trophies and finishing-line photos from Boston. His wife, Jane, is a former runner herself.

"We met in a competition. It was a long time ago," she says, laughing and adding, "he saw me in the race running. He followed me, and I ran away!"

Back on Mt. Kenya's slopes, Ndeti finishes his run in under two hours. He's not panting and barely seems to have worked up a sweat. He looks serene.

"Inside there he's thinking about the Boston Marathon," his trainer says. "To win a fourth time, we know it's not going to be easy."

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