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U.S. gets first marathon medal in 20 years

8/22/2004

ATHENS, Greece -- Training with her dog high in the Sierras,
then dodging herds of sheep on runs through the hills of Crete in
the days before the Olympics, Deena Kastor kept believing she could
earn a medal in the marathon.

"I couldn't have prepared myself any better," she said during
a break in her Crete training.

Two weeks later, Kastor conquered the rugged hills of the
ancient course that gave the marathon its name, somehow marshaling
the energy to pull from eighth to third in the final few miles and
earn the first U.S. marathon medal in 20 years.

Mizuki Noguchi of Japan held off Kenya's Catherine Ndereba to
win the gold, but Kastor was gaining on them at the end. Ndereba
took the silver, reversing the order of last year's world
championships, where the Kenyan won and Noguchi was second.

Noguchi, who ran the course as a warmup in June, won in 2 hours,
26 minutes, 20 seconds. She was 49 seconds ahead of Ndereba, who
narrowed the lead to 14 seconds late in the race but could get no
closer.

Kastor, who overtook Ethiopian Elfenish Alemu with less than a
mile remaining in the 26.2-mile race, finished in 2:27.19. Her
bronze was the first marathon medal for an American since Joan
Benoit's gold in 1984.

"It's incredible," said Kastor, an ultra-thin, exceedingly
gracious 31-year-old. "I was in tears the whole last lap."

The favorite, British world record holder Paula Radcliffe, faded
to fourth place and then quit about 3½ miles (six kilometers) from
the finish, bursting into tears, then sitting on a curb and
sobbing.

At the finish line in Panathiniko Stadium in central Athens --
site of the original modern Olympics in 1896 -- the crowd of mostly
British fans stood in stunned silence as the giant television
screen showed Radcliffe stopping, trying to start again, then
stopping for good, her face contorted in agony. They never had the
chance to wave the British flags that most of them carried.

A silver medalist at the last two world cross-country
championships, she was Deena Drossin when she broke Benoit's
18-year-old American record at 2 hours, 21 minutes, 16 seconds with
a third-place finish at the 2003 London Marathon. She married
Andrew Kastor almost a year ago, and the couple lives in Mammoth
Lakes, Calif.

She easily passed the fading Ethiopian to clinch the surprise
medal.

"A little more real estate, and she'd have had the gold," said
her husband, who admitted that he too choked up when he saw her
tears on the final lap.

The marble, horseshoe-shaped stadium was less than half-full,
although most of those there were for Radcliffe. They waved flags
and danced to music blaring from loudspeakers as Radcliffe set the
pace through the halfway point of the race.

But one and a half hours into the competition, Noguchi and Alemu
opened up a lead over Radcliffe and Ndereba.

Discarding her gray cap as the sun went down, Radcliffe faded to
third. She briefly retook second, then fell back again behind
Ndereba and the leader Noguchi.

Two hours into the race, Noguchi held a 30-second lead over
Ndereba and a minute over Radcliffe. After the finish, Noguchi had
to be helped from the stadium by an official.

She had run the Olympic course in June, then went to train at
altitude in St. Moritz, Switzerland, returning to Athens just three
days ago. She kept the gold in Japanese hands -- her countrywoman
Naoko Takahasi won the gold in Sydney in 2000.

The race begun in the heat of early evening in the town of
Marathon.

What once was a rural landscape during the first modern marathon
108 years ago had turned into a course lined with strip malls, car
dealerships and fast-food restaurants -- and a series of hills that
made it one of the toughest marathon routes in the world.

This was the first time women had raced the ancient course over
which, it is said, Pheidippides carried the news in 490 B.C. that
the Greeks had defeated the Persians in the Battle of Marathon.

"Be joyful. We win!" Pheidippides shouted.

Then he dropped dead.