Bert Rosenthal (AP)
5 November 1999 New York - Kenya's John Kagwe is not letting talk about his physical condition detract from his goal of winning a third consecutive New York City Marathon.
"You can see in his face that he's not 100 percent," said Mexico's German Silva, the 1994 and 1995 New York champion. "Maybe he's injured. Maybe it's psychological."
"He looks so thin," said Bill Rodgers, the New York champion from 1976-79 and a four-time winner of the Boston Marathon.
Looks aside, Kagwe is unfazed in his quest to become the first men's runner to win the race three straight years since Alberto Salazar won his third in a row in 1982.
"I've prepared very well for this race," Kagwe said.
Kagwe has overcome obstacles in winning the past two years.
In 1997, he had to stop twice to tie his shoelaces during the race and still ran the second-fastest time in the 30-year history of the New York City Marathon - 2 hours, 8 minutes, 12 seconds.
Last year, he came into the race off a series of less-than-spectacular performances on the road and emerged from the closest three-man battle in the event's history to beat countryman Joseph Chebet by 3 seconds and Tanzania's Zebedayo Bayo by 6 seconds.
Kagwe is aware that the time will not be fast on the undulating New York course - not even close to the world record of 2:05:42 by Morocco's Khalid Khannouchi in the Chicago Marathon last month - and he has geared himself mentally for that kind of race.
"I don't think any man here is super," Kagwe said. "I'm not coming here to be super, I'm coming here to win. "I'll be trying to win the same way I did in 1997 and 1998. I do not delete anybody from the mix but I do not fear anybody."
Even if he does not profess fear, Kagwe will be facing some formidable competition Sunday, including Chebet, who beat him at the Boston Marathon in April, and Bayo. Also in the field are Morocco's Abdelkhader Mouaziz, winner of the London Marathon seven months ago; Spain's Martin Fiz, the 1995 World Champion; Kenya's
Cosmas Ndeti, the three-time Boston champion and course record-holder; Italy's Giacome Leone, the 1996 winner; and Ecuador's Silvio Guerra, the Boston runner-up this year.
Unlike most of the other marathoners, Kagwe does not train in altitude. He prefers preparing in the flat terrain of Norristown, Philadelphia.
"Everyone has his choice," he said. "That's how I enjoy it. My belief is I can train anywhere and be good."
Winning last year's New York City Marathon marked the second year in a row that he had won a close race. In 1997, he won the Prague Marathon by 2 seconds.
When the going gets tough like that in the closing miles, Kagwe gives himself a psychological boost.
"The last couple of miles, I say, I'm brave, I'm brave. I'm not going to let go. If I have cramps, I fight them off,'' he said. "Last year, I had leg cramps at the 23rd mile and I fought them off.''
Kagwe likes to keep in touch with the leaders throughout the race, not letting anyone of world stature gain a big advantage. He learned that lesson painfully in 1996, when he finished fourth "because I kept an eye on the key guys and they didn't move."
"I'm not going to let anyone go no matter when they break," he said. "If I do, I will pay."