Sunday November 2nd, 2008

On an election week when runners-up often lay claim to moral triumphs, the first three female finishers of the New York City Marathon on Sunday -- Britain's Paula Radcliffe, Russia's Ludmila Petrova and Kara Goucher of the U.S. -- each had ample context to declare victory.

Besides Radcliffe's victory in two hours, 23 minutes, 56 seconds, an impressive time under strong windy conditions, Petrova set a masters (40-plus) world best, finishing in 2:25.43 and holding off Goucher, whose debut time, 2:25.53, was the fastest ever for a U.S. woman running her first marathon.

With a men's field that wasn't nearly as deep or as compelling, Brazilian Marilson Gomes dos Santos rallied in the final two miles to win for the second time. But for different reasons, the women who reached the podium ran for more than place and prize money.

As if Radcliffe hadn't redeemed herself from an Olympic flameout once before in New York, the classy champ threw her arms up in Central Park exactly as she wasn't able to do at the Bird's Nest in Beijing 10 weeks ago. Radcliffe, 34, virtually led from the starting horn to the finish tape, crossing the line first in 2:23.56, nearly two minutes ahead of the pack she decimated with the savageness of a front runner damning the cool headwinds and forcing the field to chase her. It was the third marathon title in New York for Radcliffe, who won the race in 2004 and 2007 and has failed to win only two of nine marathons she has entered, both at Olympic Games.

This was a familiar script. Eight years ago, Radcliffe placed fourth in the 10,000 meters at the Sydney Games. In 2004, she entered the marathon as the world-record holder (2:15.25) and prohibitive favorite, but broke down along an Athens street and pulled out midway through the race. She blamed a bad reaction to anti-inflammatory drugs she had taken to combat a quad injury. Several days later, she also pulled out of the 10,000 with eight laps to go. Was Radcliffe fighting injury, demons that appear in major races or a combination? New York Road Runners president Mary Wittenberg invited Radcliffe to view the New York Marathon in November of that year, but Radcliffe surprised her by instead asking for a race entry. With cool persistence, she held off Kenya's Susan Chepkemai to win the race by three seconds. "I don't know if I felt in needed to redeem myself in New York," she said at the time; "I just knew I had a good race in me I hadn't run."

Fast forward to 2008, when Radcliffe entered the Olympic year with three more decisive marathon victories in three tries. She suffered a thigh injury five months before the Games and struggled into 23rd place in the Beijing Marathon. "I had rebounded well in New York once before" she reasoned. "I thought maybe again."

So it was. Radcliffe took off from the gun, bolting to an early lead on the hilly two-mile long Verrazano Bridge that opens the race. Though she wasn't about to hide from the lead-pack of nine just yet, Radcliffe served notice that she had the mettle to overcome the gusts that accentuated the races hills and often broke the racers' forms. Rather than share the windbreaking duties of the front-runner, the other runners were content to tuck themselves behind Radcliffe. "Everyone was in single file behind me," Radcliffe said. "I was like, 'C'mon, we've got the whole road.'"

Radcliffe then threw down consistent 5:30-5:40 miles and on mile 19, tossed in a 5:21 just as the race hit a significant stretch along Fifth Avenue, when many runners often wilt. Though she didn't need a finishing kick, Radcliffe ran hard to the tape, never bothering to look behind her and notice that her lead had swelled to a comfortable two minutes.

"If you look back and put your foot in a pothole, you'd be pretty stupid," she explained. "My dad used to say, 'Never look behind you; it's a sign of weakness.'" That sign of weakness, physical or otherwise, is what Radcliffe's challengers will now watch for over the next four years as she eyes her first Olympic medal on her home roads at the London Games.

For Petrova, who turned 40 on Oct. 7, the race was almost a repeat of her victory at the 2000 New York Marathon, her lone triumph in 19 marathon starts. She stayed on Radcliffe's shoulder for 22 miles, then traded second place with Goucher after losing contact with the leader. Her time broke the masters mark 2:26.51 set by Briton Priscilla Welch on the flatter, faster London course in 1987.

Goucher may be an experienced 30, but she is a marathoning neophyte, who enjoyed all her previous success on the track before beating Radcliffe in a half-marathon in Newcastle last September. Goucher won a surprise bronze medal at 10,000 meters at the world championships in 2007, and earned Olympic berths at both 5,000 and 10,000 meters this summer. But her coach, Alberto Salazar, a winner at the New York Marathon, himself, always felt she could be a strong marathoner. "Alberto told me I was made for the race," she said. "So I ran it the way he ran it, so I knew I could handle the hills and I put my faith in that."

Though Goucher lives in Portland, Ore., near Salazar's training group, she also had sentimental ties to New York. Goucher was born in the borough of Queens, but her mother moved the family to Minnesota after Kara's father was killed by a drunk driver when she was a toddler. For most of the race, the genteel Goucher kept a steely front while making rookie mistakes. She cursed uncharacteristically when she dropped a water bottle early in the race and fumbled two others before reaching out and making two-hand saves that caused her to break stride. Goucher's bottles are distinguishable from the others because of the skull and cross bones printed on the outside.

Yet at 12 miles, as the race moved briefly into Queens, Goucher's thoughts turned to her father and she admitted fighting to keep concentration, as she had when bobbling the bottles. She fought back stomach cramps over the last two miles as Petrova overtook her. She was the first U.S. runner to reach the podium in New York since Anne Marie Letko-Lauck in 1994.

"I learned a lot from this race," Goucher said afterwards. "I'll definitely be back." But even as Radcliffe will now set out to battle her Olympic demons, Goucher will also have a fight a drought that seems even more daunting than British tennis failures at Wimbledon. No U.S. runner has won the race since Salazar in 1982 and no U.S. woman has won since Miki Gorman in 1977, eight months before Goucher was born.

For both Radcliffe, who may need to run less to keep her body and mind healthy, and Goucher, who may need to run more to master the distance, the race was a hopeful peak at still greater conquests down the roads.

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