Unbelievable might be the best way to describe the women’s and men’s races at the New York Marathon on Sunday. Unbelievable for both the outcomes, which were relatively surprising, but also for the incredulity with which the pre-race favourites reacted to the tactics of the eventual winners.
Pacer Luminita Talpos’ breakaway rabbiting set the tone early on. Talpos went through 10K in 34:12, 1:19 ahead of the rest of the field, consisting of nine women. These included all the expected contenders: defending champion Jelena Prokopcuka, Deena Kastor, Lornah Kiplagat, Rita Jeptoo, Susan Chepkemei and Catherine Ndereba. By 15K, not much had changed, and Talpos was now 93 seconds ahead, no doubt fulfilling her contract to run a certain pace. At the 20 km mark, however, Prokopcuka and Ukrainian Tatiana Hladyr broke away from the pack of nine. The pace was slow at the halfway mark: Talpos had come through in 1:12:19, but the rest of the women were at 1:14.
Almost impercetibly, Prokopcuka and Hladyr opened up a 43-second gap by 25K (1:27:29). The heavy hitters in the chase pack were no doubt unconcerned by the gap, confident in their ability to close the gap, which grew to an astounding 90 seconds by 20 miles (1:44:21 at 30 km). It was clear that the race would be one between Prokopcuka and Hladyr, and Prokopcuka broke away with a few miles to go. Ndereba closed the gap but she was never at all a factor. Prokopcuka ran to the finish solo and fully in control, winning by a minute over Hladyr in 2:25:05. Ndereba was third in 2:26:58, just beating out Rita Jeptoo by a second. Deena Kastor finished seventh in 2:27:54.
The men’s race was not markedly different. A pack of almost two dozen men crossed the halfway mark in a whimsical 1:05:35, with all the usual suspects intact within. The pack was halved when Hendrick Ramaala applied a vicious surge at around 25K, the pack splitting a 4:39 17th mile, and the race was on. Rodgers Rop surged to the front at around 30K with a brief surge but then returned to the pack. In contention at this point among the favourites were Rop, Paul Tergat, Hendrick Ramaala, Hailu Negussie and Meb Keflezighi. Stefano Baldini had dropped off the pace during Ramaala’s acceleration and found himself in fifteenth place.
Even less noticed than Prokopcuka and Hladyr’s move was when Marilson Gomes dos Santos of Brazil surged to the front of the group. When no one matched his initial surge, he accelerated and quickly found himself some 30-40 seconds ahead of the pack. Given the names within the pack, they could hardly be blamed for concerning themselves moreso with what went on within than what was happening ahead. Surely, they seemed to think collectively, Gomes dos Santos will come back.
The mistake, however, was a deadly one. Only Kenyans Paul Tergat and Stephen Kiogora had the acceleration necessary to try and reel in Gomes dos Santos, abandoning a high quality field in their wake. Together they eroded Gomes dos Santos’ lead steadily but quickly, reducing it to less than 15 seconds by 40K. However, it was simply too late to mount an effective attack. At times it seemed as though Tergat and Kiogora were more concerned about second place, slowing down with Tergat dropping behind Kiogora. Running like a thief, having stolen the race of his life, Gomes dos Santos repeatedly looked back to gauge his advantage, but all he needed to win was to avert a complete collapse, which he did. The Brazilian, whose credentials to date included a 2:08:48 personal best and sixth-place finish at Chicago two years ago, crossed the finish line in 2:09:58. Kiogora pulled away from Tergat in the closing stages to finish second in 2:10:06. Tergat’s was third in 2:10:10. Daniel Yego was fourth in 2:10:34 and Rodgers Rop fifth in 2:11:24. Marilson Gomes dos Santos became the first non-African to win the race since Giacomo Leone in 1996.
Further back in the pack, after running the first half on pace to reach his goal of a 3-hour marathon, 41-year old Texan Greg Thomas went through a tough stretch and finished 1215th in 3:05:50. As for that Armstrong fellow, 35-year old Terrance Armstrong ran to a 2:30:23 finish.