It wasn't the fastest men's ING New York City Marathon ever run, but it was definitely the closest and one of the most thrilling in the 35-year history of the race - and perhaps in the history of marathoning. The women's race was almost as close, and in its own way, almost as dramatic.
Paul Tergat of Kenya, in his first try at New York, edged 2004 winner Hendrick Ramaala of South Africa by a foot or so in 2:09:30 in a race that was not decided until the very last of the 42.195km.
Jelena Prokopcuka of Latvia, fifth last year, drew away from Susan Chepkemei in the final 500 metres to win the women's race in 2:24:41.
After 15 miles in the men's race, a group of about 20 runners were bunched going onto the Queensboro Bridge, which is the second toughest hill on the course. As they started downhill, Italy's Alberico Di Cecco suddenly broke free and sprinted into a 15-metre lead.
It was as if he had poked a hornet's nest with a stick. Buzzing after him were half the lead group, including defender Ramaala, Haile Negussie, Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot, Mebrahtom (Meb) Keflezighi, Abdi Abdiraman, Tergat and Irishman Mark Carroll.
When Di Cecco made his break, said Keflezighi, "I asked Mark Carroll, 'Who's that guy?' and he said, 'He's a 2:08 guy.' So I thought I'd better go after him.”
But going up first Avenue - between mile posts 16 and 17 - Ramaala threw in a stunning 4:22, followed by another in 4:42. With him were Cheruiyot and Keflezighi, and for a long moment it looked as if they had left the rest behind.
Then, ever so slowly, Tergat drew closer and closer, until the group of three became a Gang of Four. At various times in the next four miles each of the four tried a surge, but Ramaala was the most persistent, and it wasn't until about three miles to go that Cheruyiot let go.
With Ramaala and Tergat going at it hammer and tongs, Keflezighi struggled to stay with them, and for the final mile it became a two-man race - defending champion versus World record holder, neither willing to yield a centimetre.
The last 400 metres were almost as agonizing to watch on television as they must have been for the two runners - first one would edge in front, then the other would redouble his efforts and retake the lead. With 20 metres to go, Tergat was ahead; then Ramaala gritted his teeth and inched back into first. With five metres to go, Tergat summoned a final effort and squeezed past Ramaala as they ran out of road. With no room to respond again, Ramaala could only dive at the tape like an oxygen-starved 400 metre runner - but it wasn't enough and he tumbled to the asphalt perhaps 30cm behind Tergat. Their times were 2:09:30 to 2:09:31.
Keflezighi was a clear third in 2:09:56, with Cheruiyot fourth in 2:11:01, Abdirahman fifth in a PR 2:11:24, and Di Cecco hanging on for sixth in 2:11:33.
Said Tergat: "The last thing I was expecting was a sprint finish but between 24 and 25 miles I knew it was going to be a big battle. In the last 20 metres, I had to give all that I had."
Said Ramaala: "When he came back (at about mile 19), I knew it was going to be a tough race. I thought he was broken, and then he came back slowly and caught up with us.”
"I can't complain. I would have loved to win. But I was beaten by a great champion.”
The men's race was an instant classic. The women's race was a very good race, surprising in its own way because the lead group lasted much longer and underwent considerable drama over the concluding miles.
At mile 21, the lead was still shared by nine women - five Africans and four Europeans, with Russians Ludmila Petrova and Lidiya Grigoryeva. Then 2004 runner-up Susan Chepkemei, Derartu Tulu and Salina Kosgei broke away, with Chepkemei doing the heavy lifting.
But after establishing a lead of 20m or so, Chepkemei began losing her breakfast and the energy drinks she had taken in at the water stations along the course. For more than a kilometre, she heaved and heaved, running unevenly and once or two appearing ready to stop. But she fought through the vomiting with almost definitive guts and gameness.
Nevertheless, it cost her. Like Tergat in the men's race, Prokopcuka gradually clawed her way back into the race from 18 seconds back, and by the time Chepkemei was able to get back into full stride, she had the Latvian for company. The two ran together for most of the last three miles, and only with 500 metres or so was the Latvian able to pull slowly away.
Chepkemei, not surprisingly, had nothing left, and at the finish the lead was a widening 20 metres. Tulu was third in 2:25:21, with Kosgei fourth in 2:25:30, Bruna Genovese of Italy fifth in 2:27:15, and Petrova sixth in 2:27:21.
Prokopcuka, who had a stitch some 10 kilometres from the finish, said, "Yes, it was serious, but not to stop me," thus won New York in her third try (she was fifth last year). She added, "After I won the marathon in Osaka, I knew I could win in New York. This was my longtime dream, and it came true.”
Chepkemei, a bridesmaid here for the second year in a row, "When I started to throw up, I lost some seconds. That's when she caught up with me."
Prokopcuka was the big money winner, taking home $160,000, with Chepkemei grossing (you might say) $95,000. Tergat's victory was worth $125,000, while Ramaala takes home $70,000. Thanks to a $30,000 bonus for being the first American, Keflezighi won $85,000.
Jim Dunaway for the IAAF
RESULTS - ING New York Marathon
1. Paul Tergat (KEN) 2:09:30
2. Hendrick Ramaala (RSA) 2:09:31
3. Meb Keflezighi (USA) 2:09:56
4. Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot (KEN) 2:11:01
5. Abdihakim Abdiramam (USA) 2:11:24
6. Alberico Di Cecco (ITA) 2:11:33
7. Viktor Roethlin (SUI) 2:11:44
8. Simon Wangai (KEN) 2:13:19,
9. Jon Brown (GBR) 2:13:29
10. Isaac Macharia (KEN) 2:14:21
1. Jelena Prokopcuka (LAT) 2:24:41
2. Susan Chepkemei (KEN) 2:24:55
3. Derartu Tulu (ETH) 2:25:21
4. Salina Kosgei (KEN) 2:25:30
5. Bruna Genovese (ITA) 2:27:15
6. Ludmila Petrova (RUS) 2:27:21
7. Gete Wami (ETH) 2:27:40
8. Lidiya Grigoryeva (RUS) 2:27:48
9. Lyubov Denisova (RUS) 2:28:18
10. Lornah Kiplagat (NED) 2:28:28