Athletics: Mountain man turns on heat

Norman Fox talks to the Mexican chasing a hat-trick in the London Marathon
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Dionicio Ceron, who this morning attempts to win his third successive London Marathon, was born and brought up in the mountains which, on a very rare clear day, are the backdrop to Mexico City. He has run in their thin air and in blazing heat but as he stamps the cool East End streets today, his mind will be on Atlanta and the Olympic Marathon, a race in which the humidity could drive even him to dangerous risks.

He desperately wants to do well in the Olympics because in Barcelona he failed and was criticised for not trying because no money was involved. His worry is that if Barcelona was too warm what will it be like in Atlanta? "I think it's going to make people run beyond exhaustion - it could almost kill you," he said. His main rival today, Vincent Rousseau, of Belgium, has said he is not going.

Ceron has spent the last few months ignoring any benefits he may have from his years spent at altitude. Instead he has been training near Acapulco at sea level and in conditions that are as near as you can get to Atlanta in midsummer. London is really only another training run that could help him build another house back home.

The houses - four so far built for his once impoverished family on farmland north of Mexico City - and a growing textile business are his security and evidence of success on the well-paid road-running circuit. "In Mexico, the only sportsmen who used to get rich were footballers," he said. And footballers, tennis players and a few boxers were the only sportsmen in which Mexicans took any interest. It would have been unheard of for Mexican reporters and television commentators to be flown to London to cover a marathon.

But why his investment in houses? "I think that in future more people will want to go and live outside Mexico City where the pollution is so bad," he said. Now earning about $500,000 a year, he could live anywhere, but he says: "I love Mexico. I never want to live anywhere else." So when he does retire - he is 30 - his way of life will be very different from that of his childhood. The eldest of eight, he was brought up in Santa Maria Rayon, 7,500 feet above sea level. His father did farming work, which he still does but now as the supervisor on land owned by his son. "I go there often," Ceron said, "but I don't tell him what to do. I leave it to him, but I still think of myself as a farmer."

He began buying land when he first started to make money as a full-time athlete. Reports that he was once a policeman are unfounded. "I ran just once for the police by invitation." Originally he had track aspirations, but though he is still a good 10,000 metres runner, he realised early on that road running, particularly in the United States, would become more lucrative for an athlete with his endurance and background.

But he says living at high altitude is no advantage. Indeed, one of his most punishing performances was to set a time of 2hr 14min 47sec in Mexico City three years ago. He points out that there is a big difference between training at altitude, with benefits when coming down, and competing in thin air.

Although encouraged into running by his father, as a teenager he was half-hearted about training. Then his potential was seen by Luis Felipe Posso, a Colombian, who became his business manager. He first ran a marathon in Chicago in 1990, finishing ninth. By 1993 he was the best in the world, having won all three marathons he ran that year.

His first appearance in London in 1994 brought him victory, but by then he had experienced the biggest disappointment of his career when abandoning the 1992 Olympic marathon with four miles to go. He said the heat weakened him. He likes the comfortable climate of London, which was obvious last year when he and Steve Moneghetti hauled in Antonio Pinto, who had held a one-minute lead with five miles left. Ceron won with a typical late burst of acceleration. When he later ran in the world championships in Gothenburg it was much warmer. He fought and lost a huge battle with Martin Fizz, of Spain, who will be among his rivals in Atlanta.

Today he expects Rousseau to be the man to beat. The gaunt Belgian is the fastest man in a field that will not be dominated by Kenyans. Nevertheless, Ceron expects a strong challenge from the likes of his countryman and twice New York Marathon winner German Silva, and Britain's Eamonn Martin and Paul Evans, who is another refusing to go to Atlanta, Ceron said: "I've been feeling good in training but in the marathon you never know whether you are going to feel good all the way."

Such a feeling would be a novelty for Liz McColgan, but she says she has never felt better prepared. The defending champion Malgorzata Sobanska, of Poland, regards the Scot as a big threat.