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Keflezighi Makes History, Wins NYC Marathon!

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Meb winning the 2009 NYC Marathon. Photo:
Meb winning the 2009 NYC Marathon. Photo:

Mebrahtom “Meb” Keflezighi becomes the first American winner of the ING New York City Marathon since 1982.

Click here for photos.

There was a lot of talk about a possible American winner of the 2009 ING New York City Marathon on Sunday. Most of that talk centered on Ryan Hall, but it was 2004 Olympic Marathon silver medalist Meb Keflezighi who pulled off the feat. His winning time was 2:09:14

Meb was not the whole story, however. This year’s New York City Marathon also served as the USA Men’s Marathon Championship. Most of the top male American marathon runners were present, and they acquitted themselves brilliantly. After faltering on 1st Avenue, Hall regrouped and clawed his way up to fourth place. In all, six Americans made the top 10.

On the women’s side, in a slow, sparse race, it was Ethiopia’s great Derartu Tulu who finally claimed a victory no one seemed to want, breaking the tape at 2:28:52. Heavy pre-race favorite Paula Radcliffe of Great Britain, the three-time and defending New York City Marathon champion, struggled with a leg injury and finished fourth.

Tulu wins the 2009 NYC Marathon. Photo:
Tulu wins the 2009 NYC Marathon. Photo:

The Women’s Race

Conditions at the time of the women’s race start at 9:15 AM were pretty good: the temperature was 52°F, the skies were overcast and the ground was dry. It was only a stiff breeze that kept the conditions from being ideal for marathoning.

At the horn, Radcliffe shot straight to the front and the rest of the elite women’s field fell in—obediently, it seemed—behind her. Radcliffe had announced before the race that she would attempt to break Kenyan Margaret Okayo’s women’s course record of 2:22:31, set in 2003, and it was clear from the seeming reluctance with which her rivals followed her from Staten Island into Brooklyn that, if she achieved her goal, she would have to run alone much of the way.

It is very difficult to chase fast times in a marathon without anyone to push you, however, and by the 5K mark—reached in 17:55—Radcliffe’s secondary goal already seemed out of reach.

Her primary goal was, of course, to win. As if Radcliffe did not have it easy enough in that regard, facing the weakest women’s elite field in memory, between three and four miles, her two strongest rivals—Kenya’s Salina Kosgei, the reigning Boston Marathon champion, and Japan’s Yuri Kano, a 68-minute half marathoner—got their feet tangled up and fell hard to the pavement. Kosgei was up and back with the group quickly. Kano resumed running but never recovered.

Dissatisfied with her early pace, Radcliffe accelerated over the second 5K, which she ran in 17:20, whittling the lead pack down to six runners in the process. Among them were American Magdalena Lewy Boulet; Christelle Daunay of France, a 2:31 performer; Ethiopia’s Deratu Tulu; 41-year-old Ludmila Petrova of Russia, the 2000 New York City Marathon winner; and Kosgei, who was bleeding from the left knee as a result of her fall and looked to be in pain.

Having found a comfortable groove, Radcliffe stuck with it, covering the next 5K in 12:23 and reaching the 15K mark in 52:38. First to fall off the back was Lewy Boulet, but not because of any change in pace. In fact, the pace slowed slightly as Radcliffe led four others past the halfway mark in 1:14:04. By this point it was Daunay who looked most comfortable in the group, but Radcliffe never looks especially comfortable.

Radcliffe ran miles 14 and 15 so slowly, in 5:47 and 5:48 respectively, that Daunay almost had no choice but to pull onto her shoulder and share the lead. Even so, a grimacing Kosgei began to fall behind.

On the Queensboro Bridge into Manhattan, Daunay began to press the pace slightly and immediately put the other women under pressure. All five reformed a pack on 1st Avenue, but Daunay had established her strength. Radcliffe seemed to decide that this was unacceptable and tried to reclaim her dominance over the group, moving back to the front and running the 16th mile in 5:31.

The final four stayed glued together as they slogged their way toward and into the Bronx. It was amazing to watch as all four basically blew up in unison, slowing to 5:50 in mile 20 and 5:53 in mile 21. A door was being opened wide, but none of the women had the wherewithal to walk through.

As the women approached the entrance to Central Park, Radcliffe drifted to the rear of the group as her form fell apart. It was Petrova who hit the park first, a step ahead of Daunay and Tulu. Petrova decided the time was right to make her move and attacked the hills. Daunay broke while Tulu hung tough. Behind Petrova and Tulu, an incredibly gutsy Radcliffe began to catch a fading Daunay.

With 800 meters to go, Tulu exploded ahead, and the race was over.

“I tried not to win but to challenge others,” she said.

Women’s Top 10

1. Derartu Tulu (Ethiopia) – 2:28:52

2. Ludmilla Petrova (Russia) – 2:29:00

3. Christelle Daunay (France) – 2:29:16

4. Paula Radcliffe (Great Britain) – 2:29:46

5. Salina Kosgei (Kenya) – 2:31:53

6. Magdalena Lewy Boulet – 2:32:17

7. Buzunesh Deba (Ethiopia) 2:35:54

8. Serkalem Biset Abrha (Ethiopia) – 2:37:20

9. Yuri Kano (Japan) – 2:39:05

10. Desiree Ficker (USA) – 2:39:30

Meb powering home through Central Park.
Meb powering home through Central Park.

The Men’s Race

The men’s race started 30 minutes after the women’s. Abderrahime Bouramdane of Morocco, the 2008 Boston Marathon runner-up; 2004 and 2005 New York City Marathon winner Hendrick Ramaala of South Africa; and Kenya’s Patrick Makau, owner of history’s second-fastest half marathon time, led a large pack of elite men over the Verrazano Narrows Bridge.

An impatient Bouramdane went off the front alone on Brooklyn’s 4th Avenue between the second and third mile marks. Less than two kilometers later, though, he had been swallowed up by an elite selection of 17 runners. Among them were five Americans: Ryan Hall, Meb Keflezighi, Bolota Asmerom, Abdi Abdirahman and Jorge Torres.

Makau kept the pace honest, running the sixth mile in 4:52 and leading the group through 10K in a respectable time of 31:02. Over the next mile, almost imperceptibly, Makau eased away from the group, and then Bouramdane took over again and built a lead of his own. On the approach to the 15K mark, which Bouramdane reached in 46:19, it was the American duo of Hall and Keflezighi who teamed up to lead the charge to reel in the Moroccan. By the 10-mile mark, Bouramdane, Hall and Meb were sharing the lead.

At this point the lead pack was down to 13 runners, and all five of the top Americans were still there. It was looking likely that the overall men’s race and the USA Men’s Marathon Championship results would be all mixed up.

Bouramdane surged again as the pack approach the halfway point, but this time his rivals did not allow him to establish more than a nominal gap. He hit 13.1 miles at 1:05:07, with 11 others (Asmerom had begun to drop off) just a few seconds in arrears.

Surprisingly, as the men climbed the slope of the Queensboro Bridge, it was defending champion Marilson Gomes dos Santos of Brazil who lost contact with the pack. As he always seems to do, Ramaala threw the hammer down as the group merged onto 1st Avenue and instantly strung out the group. Only Bouramdane, Kenyans Kwambai, Jackson Kipkoech and Cheruiyot were able to answer as Ramaala ran a 4:43 17th mile. Hall, Meb and others showed wise patience, though, and were eventually able to catch up. The lead group was now down to nine.

Smelling blood, the strongest of the nine—including Cheruiyot and his training partner Kwambai—continued to press, running the next mile in 4:37, and soon Beijing silver medalist Jaouad Gharib, Hall, Abdirahman and Torres had become unhitched. Keflezighi was the only American with enough left in the tank to hang on. Kwambai was next to lose contact, leaving Meb, Bouramdane, and Cheruiyot to sort out the podium.

Keflezighi made a gutsy surge at 22 miles, and Bouramdane and Kwambai struggled to respond. Cheruiyot not only responded but threw in a surge of his own, and Meb thought it best to tuck in behind him. Shortly after entering the park, the American struck. Cheruiyot tried gamely to hit back, but within moments he was looking back to check on the security of his hold on second place—a sure sign that the race belonged to Keflezighi.

Behind them, Keflezighi’s training partner Ryan Hall dug deep and moved up from seventh to fourth place. Keflezighi pointed alternately to the letters “USA” on his singlet and to the sky as he raced down the final stretch to the finish line, Cheruiyot now almost out of sight behind him.

After crossing the finish line, Keflezighi wept. “I cried for Ryan Shay,” he later explained, referring to his late friend and training partner, who collapsed and died while running the 2008 USA Olympic Team Trials Marathon in Central Park.

Men’s Top 10

1. Meb Keflezighi (USA) – 2:09:14

2. Robert Cheruiyot (Kenya) – 2:09:56

3. Jaouad Gharib (Morocco) – 2:10:25

4. Ryan Hall (USA) – 2:10:45

5. Abderrahime Bouramdane (Morocco) – 2:12:14

6. Hendrick Ramaala (South Africa) – 2:12:31

7. Jorge Torres (USA) – 2:13:00

8. Nick Arciniaga (USA) 2:13:46

9. Abdi Abdirahman (2:14:00)

10. Jason Lehmkuhle (2:14:39)