Kenyan contest may be the perfect draw

Two leading marathon talents will put friendship aside as they battle for victory in London on Sunday

Nineteen years ago, the winners of the inaugural London Marathon - Dick Beardsley, of the United States, and Norway's IngeSimonsen - ran through the finish line holding hands.

The spirit of the event has changed a little since then; the difference between first and second place is now a matter of £15,000. But if there are two runners in Sunday's Flora London Marathon who might feel drawn to such a sporting gesture should circumstances permit, they are surely Joyce Chepchumba and Tegla Loroupe, respectively defending champion and holder of the world's fastest time by a woman.

Since they met 10 years ago as promising runners for a post-office team in their native Kenya, they have forged careers which have established them at the peak of their profession - as well as forging a friendship which seems set to endure when their running days are over.

The two women train together in Detmold, Germany, under the direction of their coach and manager, Volker Wagner, and share a house. It is an arrangement which appears to suit both perfectly as they target races around Europe.

"We do our speed work together, but on our long runs, sometimes I go ahead and sometimes Tegla wants to run faster," said Chepchumba, who spends half the year in Germany while her husband, Aron Kitur, looks after their eight-year-old son, Collins, back in Kenya.

"It is better for us because we are only training and resting, training and resting. When we go back to Kenya we have to go here and there visiting our parents and out-family."

It was the tiny Loroupe - just 5ft tall - who forged the German connection, joining Wagner's group of male Kenyan runners in 1993 after becoming angry with the scant regard she felt she had been given by her home federation. The move paid off almost immediately for her as she won the 1994 New York event in a national record at the age of 21.

That was enough to confirm her talent to her male African housemates, who assumed when she arrived in Germany that she was there to do washing and cooking. But Loroupe missed her old companion, and encouraged Wagner to add Chepchumba to the group.

The move worked equally well for Chepchumba, who beat Liz McColgan to this title by a mere second in 1997 and regained it last year in a time of 2hr 23min 22sec (then a world best in women-only races). She will seek to join the likes of Katrin Dorre and Ingrid Kristiansen on Sunday by winning three times in London.

But she knows better than anyone how hard it will be to beat Loroupe, who is making her first London appearance after twice beating Kristiansen's all-time women's record while racing with men at Rotterdam and then Berlin. London now makes a point of acknowledging women's records only when they come in women-only races - they paid Chepchumba a world-record bonus last year even though her time was more than two minutes slower than the one Loroupe ran in Berlin.

The two friends acknowledged yesterday that they sometimes deliberately avoid racing each other - "she wants to have a victory, and I want to have a victory," said Loroupe with a grin. Chepchumba was victorious in last November's Great North Run - but as she swiftly pointed out yesterday, Loroupe was tired from running the world half-marathon just three weeks before.

Now, though, they have been brought together and both believe they are in excellent shape, even though Chepchumba is reportedly being troubled by a sore throat.

How easy is it, how easy will it be, when one wins and the other loses? "I have won many races, and Joyce has never had a bad feeling," Loroupe volunteered. "She has won many races, and I have never had a bad feeling.

"Sport is part of life; it is not everything. We were at school together, and we got a job together. We have been together for a long time helping each other." The suggestion that they might try and recreate 1981 if they find themselves sprinting for the line on Sunday made both of them smile. "Pray to God that everything goes that well," said Loroupe with a wide grin. "Then we will see..."