Jifar, Okayo break records in red-white-and-blue NYC Marathon

Monday, November 5th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ Even the lines painted on the asphalt were red, white and blue.

The colors of the U.S. flag sparkled in the sun through the city's five boroughs: from the arches of balloons spanning the bridge at the start, to the shirts, shorts and hats worn by participants, to the signs held by spectators.

This New York City Marathon was as much about coping with the tragedy of Sept. 11 as it was about competition. And the competition was quite good Sunday, with Tesfaye Jifar of Ethiopia and Margaret Okayo of Kenya winning in race-record times.

Jifar, who had never won a marathon, completed the 26.2 miles in 2 hours, 7 minutes, 43 seconds; Okayo finished in 2:24:21.

At the start, they could look to their left for a clear view of lower Manhattan _ where the World Trade Center once stood.

``It was very moving. Every time I went by a firehouse, I couldn't help but tip my hat,'' said 1984 Olympic champion Joan Benoit Samuelson, who finished 21st in the women's division.

``I hope this will help in the healing process for the city.''

About 10 people ran in place of relatives killed Sept. 11. Also in the race were Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and Claire Fletcher, CBS News anchor Dan Rather's assistant. Fletcher tested positive for skin anthrax last month, among the first cases made public.

The 25,000 runners were about 5,000 fewer than expected, which race organizers attributed to fears about safety. Runners were told not to accept cups of water from spectators.

The winners' times perhaps were helped by the first major change in the course since 1977: Organizers eliminated a hill near the entrance to Central Park, making for a flatter finish.

Asked if she would have broken the record if that hill were part of the race, Okayo didn't hesitate: ``No, no way.''

In becoming the first Ethiopian to win here, Jifar took 18 seconds off the course record set by Tanzania's Juma Ikangaa 12 years ago.

Okayo separated herself from other top women at about the 15-mile mark, shedding her black wool gloves as the temperature approached 60. She bettered the 9-year-old race record set by Australia's Lisa Ondieki by 19 seconds.

Jifar and Okayo each won $80,000 for finishing first, plus bonus money ($50,000 for him, $35,000 for her) for setting course records.

Jifar's first competitive race was just three years ago. His older brother, Habte, is a world-class 10,000-meter runner and persuaded Tesfaye to try the sport.

Jifar finished seventh at the World Championships in August, but he looked like an experienced marathoner Sunday. He separated from his final challenger, Kenya's Japhet Kosgei, with about three miles left on the route, which was marked on the road with red and white lines in addition to the traditional blue used for marathons.

Kosgei, the runner-up for the second straight year, finished in 2:09:19. Another Kenyan, Rodgers Rop, was third.

``I didn't feel anything,'' said Jifar, who at 12 was blinded in his right eye by a bull's horn. ``No pain, no stress, no problems _ that is why I passed Kosgei.''

Just before entering Central Park, Jifar used a final surge that was too much for Kosgei _ who had won all four marathons he entered until last year in New York.

``It was my decision _ to be first or second,'' Tesfaye said through an interpreter. ``That was the last decision I had to make.''

This course, with its bridges and hills, traditionally is slower than those for some other elite races. Jifar's winning time was 54 seconds off his personal best and 2:01 slower than Khalid Khannouchi's world best.

Okayo's time was her fastest by 44 seconds, although it was more than 5 1/2 minutes off the world mark Catherine Ndereba set in Chicago on Oct. 7.

Okayo was third last year in New York and won the Rock 'N' Roll Marathon in San Diego each of the past two years, breaking the course record both times.

Another Kenyan, Susan Chepkemei, was second Sunday in 2:25:12, followed by Svetlana Zakharova of Russia, who was one second behind. Defending champion Ludmila Petrova was sixth.

Appropriately, the NYC Marathon served as the U.S. national championship for the first time.

Scott Larson was the top American man, finishing 13th overall. Deena Drossin, competing in a marathon for the first time, won the U.S. women's title and was seventh overall.

``This is the first time I've seen American flags out there,'' said Allan Steinfeld, the race's technical director since 1983.

``I've seen flags from Mexico, Ecuador, Kenya _ people who are generally in the lead of the race.''