Edna Kiplagat recovered from a sluggish opening 10km to become the first woman in history to land back-to-back World Marathon titles in an absorbing race.
It was a stunning performance from the 33-year-old Kenyan, who sprinted into the Luzkniki Stadium to take gold by 13 seconds in 2:25:44, but the plaudits should also go to the unheralded silver medallist Valeria Straneo.
The 37-year-old Italian conjured up a courageous front-running performance in which she led from the gun and threatened to take the race victory until Kiplagat seized control at the 40km mark.
Japan’s Kayoko Fukushi took bronze in 2:27:45.
Kiplagat, who had downplayed her chances of victory in the lead up to the race, said of the afternoon start: “The time of the race was unusual, because I’m used to my races being on a morning. So during training I adjusted the training time. I got confident I was going to win at 40km.”
For Straneo, who become the oldest ever World Championship medallist in an individual running event, men's or women’s, and the first European to win a medal in this event since 2005, it was a rich reward for a career which only started to flourish after she had her spleen removed in 2010.
The following year the mother-of-two improved her Marathon best by almost 15 minutes. Last year she set an Italian record of 2:23:44 in Rotterdam, before finishing a respectable eighth at the London 2012 Olympic Games.
Still, few would have predicted this level of performance from Straneo, least of all herself.
“I think I am the surprise of the day,” she explained. “At 40km I had to let Edna go because I was feeling pain in my leg muscle.”
Fukushi, 31, ensured it was a good day for the ‘thirtysomething brigade’ as she took the bronze medal.
The sight of the clouds just starting to build at the start of the Marathon would have been a welcome sight for the 70-strong field, albeit in afternoon temperatures of 27 degrees Celsius and humidity of 66 per cent, as they set out on their 26.2-mile quest inside the Luzhniki Stadium.
However, if we expected a game of cat and mouse in the early stages, this was blown apart by Straneo, who set a vigorous pace from the outset. An opening 5km of 17:05 quickly splintered the field and by 10km the Italian led a lead group of eight athletes, followed by Ethiopian duo Meselech Melkamu and Feyse Tadese, the Kenyan pair of Valentine Kipketer and Lucy Kabuu, Fukushi and her compatriot Mizuki Noguchi, the 2004 Olympic champion, and China’s Jia Chaofeng.
At this point, Kiplagat was trailing down in 15th, some 29 seconds behind the leading pack and seemingly struggling.
The next 5km, however, saw a miraculous recovery from the eventual gold medallist as she joined the lead group at 15km after storming through the 10-15km stretch in a stunning 16:54.
At the front, the Italian maintained her ruthless attitude by maintaining a hard pace, with Jia falling off and reducing the lead group to seven athletes.
An eventful first half of the race also witnessed the demise of 2012 Olympic champion Tiki Gelana. Hardly seen at the sharp end of the race, the Ethiopian dropped back just after 10km.
At the 20km turning point the top seven remained the same with Jia and Japan’s Ryoko Kizaki lurking some 13 seconds back.
A relentless Straneo again injected more pace. Tadese was next to crack and the lead group at halfway, reached in 1:12:58, was whittled down to six.
Wearing striking pink shoes, the long-time leader bravely continued her medal bid and the next to fade, almost simultaneously, from the lead bunch were the Kenyan duo Kabuu and Kipketer.
The lead quartet was now represented by four different nations as Straneo, Kiplagat, Fukushi and Melkamu went through the 25km point at Red Square in single file. Kizaki, running a patient race, was 14 seconds back in fifth while Jia appeared to be struggling with cramp and later dropped out.
With the earlier clouds having lifted, and the field now running in bright sunshine, the final 17km was to prove a real slog for the remaining protagonists, but Straneo refused to yield at the front with Melkamu tracking her every move.
Just before 30km, the Japanese slipped off the back and out of the medal positions, leaving Straneo, Melkamu and Kiplagat to reach the 30km point in 1:44:01 and holding the top three placings, with Fuksuhi now half a dozen seconds off the pace and Kizaki was more than a minute back in fifth.
The next to crack was Melkamu, leaving the final 10km as a head-to-head battle between Straneo and Kiplagat.
Rounding the 35km point at the cathedral the race for home begin with the Italian, who had just recorded a 17:05 5km, holding a two-stride advantage from her long-time shadow. Fukushi, meanwhile, reversed positions with Melkamu at the drink station at 35.5km. The fading Ethiopian was soon to quit.
In brutally hot and humid conditions, both lead athletes took on significant amounts of water at the refreshment station at 38km, probably were both plotting in their mind a potential route to gold.
The decisive move of the race was made at 40km as Kiplagat, for the first time, edged alongside Straneo for a few strides before moving purposefully ahead and quickly opening up a lead.
Despite glancing back on a few occasions in the final two kilometres, the high-striding Kenyan pulled clear and would not be denied a second successive gold medal following on from her success in Daegu two years ago.
Almost four minutes behind the medallists, Kizaki took fourth with 2:31:28 and the fast-finishing Spaniard Alessandra Aguilar was fifth in 2:32:38.
Completely a memorable day for Italy was three-time national steeplechase champion Emma Quaglia in sixth with 2:34:23.
In a forgettable Marathon for the supposedly powerful-looking Ethiopian team, their top finisher was Aberu Kebede back in 13th with their four other entrants all failing to complete the course. Meanwhile, Kabuu, the second best of the Kenyans, wound up 24th.
Steve Landells for the IAAF