CAPE ELIZABETH — She’s dubbed “the great one” of the sport of running, so much so that Catherine Ndereba is looked up to the same way basketball players admire Michael Jordan.
Over the years, Cape Elizabeth has become a second home to the 38-year-old Kenyan running legend, and for good reason.
She has won five TD Bank Beach to Beacon titles, including the first four (1998-2001) and has returned her to compete in this morning’s race, her first Beach-to-Beacon since 2006.
If five Beach to Beacon wins aren’t enough, Ndereba, who last won here in 2003, is a two-time Olympic Marathon Silver Medalist (2004, 2008), four-time Boston Marathon winner and two-time world champion in the marathon.
“It’s amazing looking at her and all the accomplishments she’s had, and to be part of this with her. It feels special,” said Sheri Piers of Falmouth, the 2009 Maine race champ who is establishing herself as one of the country’s top marathoners.
Ndereba will be among a throng of talented elite athletes vying for Beach to Beacon honors in the 13th annual race this morning, with both defending champions, Ed Muge on the men’s side and Irene Limika on the women’s, both from Kenya, returning for another run at the top spot.
Ndereba, who divides her time between her home country and Philadelphia, is head-over-heels happy to be back in a race that she dubbed one of her favorites.
“I’m just happy to be back, and I’m happy that I’m running pain-free, so my goal is just to have a great race and finish strong.,” Ndereba said at a pre-race press conference held at the Inn by the Sea on Friday morning.
She hasn’t raced in six months after suffering a hamstring injury while training for the Boston Marathon in April, but that humbling experience has made Ndereba stronger than ever.
“I’ve learned how to stay focused, stay positive and just stay strong,” Ndereba said.
While a lot of runners surely look up to Ndereba, she has missed seeing her hero on a yearly basis.
“I missed seeing (race founder Joan Benoit Samuelson), Joanie is like my idol,” Ndereba said.
Ndereba’s chances of claiming an unprecedented sixth Beach-to-Beach title will be difficult with the reigning champ Limika back in the field, along with Edna Kipligat of Kenya, who recently set a course record of 47 minutes, 57 seconds at the Utica Boilermaker 15K, while Lineth Chepkurui of Kenya recently ran an impressive 30:51 at the Peachtree 10K and is ranked ninth in the world.
But wins and losses aren’t important to this legend of running, who will be smiling when she crosses the finish line at Fort Williams Park and sees some familiar, picturesque sites such as the Portland Head Light.
“This race, I just love it, and it doesn’t matter whether I’ve won or (not),” Ndereba said.
The thousands of spectators who line the 6.2-mile course every summer is also quite the humbling experience for Ndereba.
“They are part of it, the people in Cape Elizabeth, they have a place in my heart,” she said. “Meeting all the people from the whole community and seeing the much love they have for racing, it’s quite wonderful.”
Another former champ and running legend, Khalid Khannouchi, is returning to run in the men’s field as well.
The native of Morocco, who is now an American citizen, was the champion of the inaugural Beach-to-Beach in 1998, and is a four-time Chicago Marathon winner and is a former world record holder in the marathon.
While the elite men’s field has a true international feel, as usual, there is a Maine flavor among that delegation in North Yarmouth native Ben True.
True ran away with the Maine men’s race last summer, running 29:10, and moved out west to join the Oregon Track Club before deciding to move back east this summer.
No longer a resident of the Pine Tree State, True is competing in the elite field this year.
“I’m an East Coast guy, I’m from Maine, and the West Coast didn’t feel right for me,” said True. He will move to Hanover, N.H., where he attended Dartmouth College, later this month.
“That was the big thing, that prompted the decision to move back East,” he said.
Muge is gunning for his third straight Beach-to-Beach title, and Gebre Gebremariam of Ethiopia, who ran 27:56 in winning the Peachtree, is the best bet to dethrone Muge.
Martin Lel of Kenya, who has three London Marathon wins and two New York City marathon victories under his belt, is a threat as well.