In the three months leading up to the New York Marathon, Kenya's Paul Tergat often sprinted through the hills of N'gong, near the capital, Nairobi, with the final leg of the course, a hilly portion of Central Park, in his mind. "I thought the race could be won in the last kilometers in the park," he said. "Every hill I ran in training, I ran [to gain] an extra step in the park." On Sunday afternoon Tergat's hunch proved right. He and defending champion Hendrick Ramaala ran shoulder-to-shoulder through the park, and Tergat outsprinted the South African to the finish by less than a second--the closest margin in the race's history--in 2:09:30. Meb Keflezighi, the Eritrean-born American, ran with the leaders until the final mile but faded to third in 2:09:56. (No U.S. runner has won the race since Alberto Salazar in 1982.)
Tergat's victory added to a career littered with stellar performances and near misses. He has won the World Cross-Country Championships five times, and two years ago he won the Berlin Marathon in 2:04:55, lowering the world record by a staggering 42 seconds. Yet he has settled for four Olympic or world championship silver medals at 10,000 meters--most notably at the 2000 Sydney Games, when Ethiopia's Haile Gebrselassie barely outsprinted him to the line. "As Hendrick and I began to sprint," said Tergat of Sunday's race, "I thought about Sydney and said, 'Not second again. Two hours is too long to be second.'"
In New York the lead changed hands four times in the final .2-of-a-mile section of the park. With a few feet to go, Tergat pulled ahead and held on even as Ramaala flung himself across the tape and fell to the ground. (The women's champ had an easier time. Jelena Prokopcuka of Latvia won by 14 seconds over Susan Chepkemei of Kenya.)
In a postrace interview Tergat--whose wife, Monica, met him at the finish line--expressed fascination with American TV, particularly the reality show The Biggest Loser, which rewards contestants for losing weight. The champ is an ambassador for the UN's World Food Program that used to feed him lunch at school. Those meals, he said, supplemented the daily porridge bowl his mother could afford to give him and two of the 17 siblings from a polygamous family who lived with him in a mud hut. "I arrived here prepared for anything," he said. "Not for the lifestyle, but certainly for the race."