BOSTON Timothy Cherigat and Jelena Prokopcuka can attest to the fact that the Boston Marathon is rarely a dull race run under placid conditions. When Kenya's Cherigat won in 2004, surging ahead of the pack on the Newton Hills, he sweated in 80-degree heat, one of the sultriest Patriots' Days in history.
Latvia's Prokopcuka led until the last mile and a half of last year's cold, wet race, buffeted by a Nor'Easter storm. Still bothered by the remnants of bronchitis, she nonetheless stayed up front, taking the brunt of the stubborn head wind. But near the end, Russia's Lidiya Grigoryeva pressed forward and kicked to the line first.
The forecast for this morning's start in Hopkinton of the world's oldest annual marathon: temperatures in the 50s under cloudy skies. Almost ideal conditions for a comeback, which is what Cherigat and Prokopcuka have in mind.
They'll be ahead of about 25,000 other runners. Among them will be seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, who is aiming to run a 2:45, and 1983 Boston champ Greg Meyer, the last American to win here. Kenya's Robert Cheruiyot, the two-time defending champion, will try to join three other men who have won four or more Boston titles and earn the $150,000 prize.
Cherigat, 31, said he feels as prepared as he did in 2004, despite tumultuous times back home in the Rift Valley, the cradle of elite distance runners. Tribal strife erupted in December after the controversial presidential election. Marauding mobs went on killing sprees and burned down houses. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced. Former running star Lucas Sang, a friend of Cherigat, was beaten to death.
Cherigat, who lives in the town of Chepkorio, said he was able to maintain most of his routine.
"There was more trouble in the cities and not so much in the small villages where we train," he said. "Sometime we couldn't travel or my training partners couldn't join me because of the roadblocks."
The heartbreak was worse than the danger, he said.
"It has really affected me because as countrymen we must live at peace, we need each other," said Cherigat, a member of the Kalenjin tribe. "Tension always comes at election time and this time the magnitude was worse. But we have to forget our differences and unite."
A power-sharing compromise between presidential incumbent Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu, and challenger Raila Odinga, supported by the Kalenjin tribe, has the country "going back to normal," Cherigat said.
Cherigat, who has a personal best of 2:09:34, hopes he or one of his countrymen continues Kenya's dominance in Boston. Kenyans have won 15 of the past 17 men's races and six of the past eight women's races.
"Most of us grew up the hard way and we love the sport of running," said Cherigat, who used to run 12 miles a day to and from high school, as well as help his family till their plot of land and tend to their cows and sheep.
Today, he enjoys preaching and singing gospel music at the African Inland Church. Of his three young children, his daughter has taken up running.
"But I would like for her to play tennis," he said. "Not so many people in Africa play tennis. I like the sport. I'm a big fan of Serena Williams."
Running was not much of a pastime in Latvia until Prokopcuka became the country's most popular sports celebrity.
"Five years ago I didn't see anybody running back home," said Prokopcuka, 32, who lives in the Gulf of Riga town of Jurmala with husband Aleksander Prokopcuk, Latvia's national men's marathon record-holder. "Now the Riga Marathon is growing very fast."
Prokopcuka was nicknamed "Audrey Hepburn" by the New York City Marathon director. She won New York twice and captivated fans with her resemblance to the "Breakfast at Tiffany's" actress.
In Boston, she's come close to winning twice, only to lose in the last mile. She led most of the way in 2006 until Kenya's Rita Jeptoo made her move. Prokopcuka lost by 10 seconds in the closest women's finish ever. Last year Grigoryeva won by 40 seconds.
"In 2006 I was ready to win and in 2007 I was surprised to be winning," she said. "But in both cases, they made a gap and I couldn't reach them. Rita and Lidiya were stronger."
Prokopcuka said her three months of winter training in Portugal, Boulder, Colo., and San Luis Obispo, Calif., has gone without a hitch.
"This year I am full of anticipation," she said. "I feel my chance is really high. My dream is to win Boston."
Her only trepidation: Boston's hills. Not the uphills, but the downhills.
"It's difficult for the muscles," she said. "I cannot run downhill very well."
Prokopcuka began running at age 11.
"My motivation was very strange," she recalled. "My friend ran and I'd sit at home waiting for her. One day, she said, 'Come with me.' She stopped after one year but I kept going. I found I had energy and had to spend it."
Monday's race has Olympic ramifications for Cherigat, who hopes to be chosen by the Kenyan federation for the Beijing marathon, but not for Prokopcuka, a three-time Olympian on the track who has decided to skip Beijing.
"I know I cannot run in those hot conditions," she said. "I have no chance."