Is he being coy, or is he as vulnerable as he looks?

Kenya's John Kagwe is seeking a three-peat in one of distance-running's most hallowed races, Sunday's New York City Marathon. The seemingly ever-present grin on Kagwe's amiable face bends uncomfortably when he is reminded that he could become the first man since Alberto Salazar in 1980-82 to win three in a row.

Kagwe says he does not want to hear about a three-peat.

He says he has no strategy.

He says he prefers to block out thoughts of the high quality field.

"I feel a little nervous," Kagwe said. " 'Just do the three-peat,' it really gives you some kind of tension, so you had better not hear it."

There are about a half-dozen men in Sunday's field who figure to have a shot at unseating Kagwe, who looks slight enough to throw over your shoulder at 5 feet 6, 113 pounds. Bill Rodgers, the only man to win four straight New York Marathons, said this week that Kagwe "looks real thin" and in races this summer had "no gas at all."

Seven entrants have actually run faster times than Kagwe's personal best, a 2-hour, 8-minute, 12-second time that gave him his first victory in New York in 1997.

"I don't think I'm coming here trying to be super," Kagwe said this week. "I'm coming her trying to win the race, just like the other guys."

Fellow runners seem both encouraged by Kagwe's apparent discomfort and worried that he is playing mind games with them. He may shrink from the topic of his success, but he has never shrunk when it really mattered in New York, such as during the race's final, steep, grueling conclusion in Central Park. It was in Central Park that he outsprinted Kenyan Joseph Chebet last year over the final 400 meters, winning by the second-closest margin in the race's history.

"You can see in the face of Kagwe that he's not really 100 percent," said Mexico's German Silva, who is recovering from a foot injury and planning only to run the first half of Sunday's race.

Kagwe won in 1997 even though his shoelaces came undone three times during the race. He won again in 1998 despite saying he lacked confidence after a mediocre summer of running. It's been an even more dismal summer for Kagwe this year. He finished in seventh place at a 10-mile race in St. Petersburg, Fla., in October, second at the Virginia 10-miler and eighth at a 20K in New Haven, Conn., in September.

"He is down a notch from previous years," said Ryan Lamppa, a researcher at the USA Track and Field Road Runner Information Center. "I wouldn't underestimate him, but at the same time, I wouldn't be surprised if he doesn't do well based on what I am seeing."

Kagwe has everybody perplexed. Rodgers and others wonder if he is fatigued from over-training, or if he merely treated this summer's races as hard training runs, without concern over where he placed.

"It's just like last year," Rodgers said, "He doesn't show any signs of pre-New York brilliance."

Responded Kagwe: "Let's see what everybody thinks on Sunday."

Even Kagwe's training regimen is baffling to some. Unlike most top distance runners, he doesn't bother training at a high altitude location, such as in Kenya or Boulder, Colo., a popular center of distance running. Training at altitude is believed to increase a runner's endurance, and many runners flock to mountain training sites.

Kagwe trains every summer at the sea level Valley Forge Park in Norristown, Pa. A father of three children ranging in age from 3 to 8, the 30-year-old Kagwe shares living quarters in Norristown with several other Kenyan runners. He is a devout Christian, and he fills his days with little more than meals of the cornmeal dish ugali and twice-daily training runs.

"My belief," he said, "is I can train anywhere and be good."

Providing competition Sunday will be Chebet, Zebedayo Bayo, Elijah Lagat, London Marathon champ Abdelkhader El Mouaziz of Morocco, young Kenyan Simon Biwott, and three-time Boston Marathon winner Cosmas Ndeti.

"We have a lot of good runners this year," said Ecuador's Silvio Guerra, an up-and-coming marathoner who finished second this year in Boston. "For sure, this year the race will be fast and very competitive. That's why everybody has to think twice before they try [to make a move] to win this race."

Kagwe said he plans to be flexible, adapting to whatever tactics the other runners bring.

All of them, of course, will have their eyes on Kagwe.

"We cannot allow him to be winning every year," Lagat said. "We need a change."

SUNDAY'S RACE

The New York City Marathon

When: 10:50 a.m.

TV: tape-delay broadcast at

3 p.m., WRC-4, WBAL-11.

Field: About 30,000 runners,

making it the largest marathon

in the United States.

1998 winners: John Kagwe, Kenya; Franca Fiacconi, Italy.

Course record holders: Juma Ikangaa, Tanzania, 2:08:01, 1989; Lisa Ondieki, Australia, 2:24:40, 1992.

Prize purse: $251,300. Men's and women's winners each get $50,000 and a new Mazda Miata. There are also time incentives. Any U.S. runner who finishes in the top six will earn double prize money.