Think of a marathon as a 20-game regular season followed by a best-of-6.2 playoff series. Races often remain undecided until the closing ten kilometers and Sunday's New York Marathon fit the mantra with stunning finishes that produced titles for two Kenyans -- Geoffrey Mutai and Priscah Jeptoo. It was the first Kenyan sweep of the elite races in New York since 2003 and it came on a day that contained notable elements of healing and rebuilding. The race, which took place in cool, windy conditions, was run against a backdrop of two tragedies: One year ago, Hurricane Sandy took 285 lives over seven countries, badly damaged the New York area and caused the cancellation of the 2012 New York Marathon. And seven months ago, the bombing near the finish line of the Boston Marathon killed three people and injured more than 250 others. On a day that normally fills the city with joy and celebration, the success of Sunday's New York Marathon was also surrounded by feelings of relief and hope. The 2013 race featured a record 50,740 starters and was televised live on ESPN, the first appearance on live network TV in 20 years. The marathon this year was not only a rebirth, but also a test of patience for the winners.
By the end of the race, Jeptoo was ahead by significant daylight, taking the race in two hours, 25 minutes and seven seconds -- 49 seconds ahead of Buzunesh Deba, an Ethiopian who lives in New York City and is as close to a local as the race has seen since its early days. Latvia's Jelena Prokopcuka was third in 2:27:47. Jeptoo was several minutes off the pace for much of the morning, allowing the leaders to tire after building too taxing of a pace. At the start, Deba and fellow Ethiopian Tigist Tufa Demisse, eighth in the New York half marathon, built a two-minute lead over the field after the first six miles. They were still side-by-side, having increased their margin over the field to three minutes and 22 seconds at the halfway point. Jeptoo, the London Marathon winner and Olympic silver medalist, was biding her time. She had been 15th after six miles, but by 20 miles, Jeptoo closed the gap closed to 1:20 in third place and finally caught Deba at 23 miles. "I used a lot of energy just to get to the group and get through the wind," Jeptoo said. "I had a lot of confidence. I had nothing to fear." Demisse fell well off the place, taking eighth, a full 4:18 off Jeptoo's winning time. The race was worth an additional $500,000 for Jeptoo, who clinched the World Marathon Majors victory, a title earned from points compiled based on finishes in the world's top international marathons over the previous two years.
Mutai defended his title from the year the race was last run in 2011, but like Jeptoo, he took his time to get there, allowing two runners to play the roles of the hares while the lethal turtle bided his time. There were nine runners, all African natives, in a tightly bunched pack at the 20-mile mark. A mile later, Mutai and fellow Kenyan Stanley Biwott had built a 15-second lead and appeared certain to pull away. "At that point I felt very comfortable," Mutai said. "I decided I am going to move fast. If you come with me, I don't care." By the 22-mile mark, Mutai had pulled ahead of Biwott by ten seconds, running with purpose and determination. Biwott began to fade. Mutai crossed in 2:08:24. Ethiopia's Tsegaye Kebede was second 52 seconds behind. Biwott slipped to fifth. The time was relatively slow and tactical, which highlights Mutai's sensational range.
In 2011, Mutai ran the fastest marathon race in history, finishing the Boston Marathon in 2:03:02. Though the result doesn't count as a world best because the Boston course is lower at the finish than at the start, it was perhaps the most remarkable race in history because Boston's rolling hills are more of a hindrance to quicker times than a help. He credits his adaptability to his decision to coach himself and eschew conventional blueprints of training. "I don't say I don't like coaches," he says, "but I have my own ideas, like an artist and an athlete."
Tatyana McFadden easily sped away with a victory in the women's wheelchair race, taking the event in 1:59:13, 3:41 ahead of Japan's Wakako Tsuchida, the second-place finisher. In so doing, McFadden completed a remarkable sweep, becoming the first runner of any division to win four major marathons in the same year. McFadden already captured marathons within the past year: Boston, London and Chicago, which she won by two seconds. Yet McFadden's sporting season is merely giving way to another. The converted sprinter who once said it was crazy to consider a marathon will now prepare for the Winter Paralympics in Sochi, where she hopes to represent the U.S. in adaptive skiing. McFadden has already won ten track medals over three Paralympics in distances between 200 and 1,500 meters. She'll head to camps in both Utah and Colorado, preparing for what she hopes will be her first trip to the Winter Games. "I'll take about a week to rest," she says. "Then it's back to work."
The men's wheelchair race produced one of the closest and most cluttered finishes in history, with five racers finishing within two seconds of each other. Marcel Hug of Switzerland broke it first in 1:40:14, the same time as runner-up Ernst Van Dyk of South Africa. Australia's Kurt Fearnly was one second back.
-- Not everyone runs to finish first, but even some who don't can still run to make history. Idrissa Kargbo is the first runner from the West African nation of Sierra Leone to compete in New York. Kargbo finished the race in 2:58:54, well behind the national record of 2:35:15 he set earlier this year, even though he crossed the halfway point in New York in a strong 1:13:33. Kargbo, 22, hails from the capital city of Freetown. Without a job for nearly a year, he slept on a hospital mattress for five months this year before earning work selling coffee. An Australian woman working on health projects in the country helped raise more than $13,000 to arrange transportation, housing and clothing for Kargbo's trip. He encountered some sights in New York that he had never seen before, from tall buildings to bulky, fast subways. But above all for Kargbo, the most confounding find was the escalator. Just what was this thing going up and down, folding and unfolding? "I didn't know how to move with this item," Kargbo recalled this week, "so I say step back and then jump in it." And what happened? "Fall down," Kargbo said, none the worse for his vertical travels.
--Former tennis ace John McEnroe was working for ESPN as an analyst for this race with no eyes of running it even though it ends within a short walk of his apartment. Now he's getting an itch. "I'm thinking about it," he says. "I just don't think I can make it right now." McEnroe, 53, did play in a pair of marathon tennis matches that lasted more than six hours. Other winners of Grand Slam tennis tournaments, France's Yannick Noah and Sweden's Mats Wilander, have completed marathons.
--The race had a new color this year. Traditionally, the trail of the course in New York is marked off by intermittent blue lines. This year, the blue lines were joined by adjacent yellow lines, the traditional color of the Boston Marathon route, to honor the victims there.