NEW YORK — For two years he’d been a defending champion with nothing to defend. Geoffrey Mutai had set a course record in 2011 and was ready for a reprise when last November’s race was scrubbed in the wake of Superstorm Sandy.
His competitive road has been up and down since. He was bypassed for the Olympics, but Gotham is his city, then and now.
“To win this course or to repeat here again twice, it’s not easy,” Mutai said Sunday after he’d run away from everyone again at the New York City Marathon in a tactical 2 hours 8 minutes 24 seconds to become the first man to retain his title since countryman John Kagwe in 1998. “For me, it’s a glory. So I think I’m more famous now in Kenya.”
With Priscah Jeptoo coming from a borough behind to run down Ethiopia’s Buzunesh Deba, it was Kenya’s first sweep in the Apple since Martin Lel and Margaret Okayo pulled it off in 2003.
“This is a day I won’t forget for the rest of my life,” declared Jeptoo, who made up a gap of nearly 3½ minutes on Deba between miles 14 and 24 to claim not only the $100,000 winner’s purse but also the $500,000 jackpot as World Marathon Majors victor.
After last year’s controversial cancellation and the Boston bombings in April, it was a New York race unlike any of the others that have been held since 1970 with an unprecedented level of security and a field of nearly 50,000 entrants who were determined to show that the marathoning virtues of dedication and doggedness could overcome the worst that nature and man could present.
Most notable among them was Meb Keflezighi, the 2009 victor who’d been hobbled by a calf injury and a knee laceration, but was adamant about making it to the finish even after his body shut down before the 20-mile mark.
“I didn’t come here to stop,” said the Olympic medalist who’d withdrawn before the Boston race with a calf injury and hadn’t run a marathon since he placed fourth at the London Games. “I’m doing it for Boston and I’m doing it for New York and I’m doing it for America.”
Keflezighi, who’d led at 11 miles, hung in for as long as he could. “I knew my body was going to give out at some point,” he said after finishing 23d in 2:23:47. “I didn’t know where.”
By the time he was forced to walk, the pack was down to nine men, including Mutai, Stephen Kiprotich, the Olympic and world champion, London titlist Tsegaye Kebede, and former Boston winner Wesley Korir. On a blustery and overcast morning with a wind chill of 45 degrees, nobody wanted to go solo.
“It was incredibly windy,” said Ryan Vail, a cross-country runner and trackman who was the top American finisher in 13th. “We knew that going into it, but everyone had to deal with it. It was an even playing field.”
It was a bit too even for Mutai, who’d won here two years ago (and set a course record of 2:05:06) by busting a move in the Bronx. This time he did it shortly after coming back into Manhattan with countryman Stanley Biwott in tow. Mutai, a companionable sort, doesn’t mind company. “When I start moving I don’t care if you come or if you stay back,” he said. “Because I say, if you come you come and we go together or leave me and go . . . I don’t look back. I’m only going my way.”
Biwott, who was making his debut here, was King of the Roads last summer, winning both the Beach to Beacon 10K in Maine and the Falmouth Road Race. He had the speed to stay with Mutai but not the experience of taking it to the Park. He ultimately faded to fifth after Mutai dropped him and runner-up honors went to Kebede, who picked up $500,000 as a consolation prize for winning the men’s World Marathon Majors title.
Jeptoo, the Olympic silver medalist who’d won in London this year, needed to win here to surpass countrywoman Edna Kiplagat, the two-time world titlist and winner here in 2010, in the WMM standings. For the first half of the race that didn’t seem possible after Deba and countrywoman Tigist Tufa dashed off and away from the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and had a two-minute gap on the field after 5 miles.
That was fine with the rest of the pack, which was content to take its time through Brooklyn and Queens. “It was a strong wind and no one wanted to run so fast,” said Jelena Prokopcuka, who’d won here in 2005 and 2006 and finished third Sunday in her first appearance here in six years.
Deba, who’d been second to countrywoman Firehiwot Dado here two years ago, had planned on a fast getaway but had no idea how far ahead she and Tufa were. Nor did Jeptoo until someone told her.
“I realize that three minutes is almost one kilometer so I started to push the pace,” said Jeptoo, the Olympic runner-up who’d won London this year. “I was having confidence that I would make it.”
Once she went into gear Jeptoo began gaining ground in blocks. By mile 18 the gap was down to 2:07. By mile 21 it was 61 seconds. Coming through Harlem Jeptoo could see Tufa within reach. Then it was Deba, who had been fighting off cramps since Mile 8, and once Jeptoo went by her at 24 miles the chase was over.
“This is a great moment for me,” she proclaimed, after she’d left Deba 49 seconds behind in 2:25:07. A great moment, too, for marathoners, who’ve been through an annus horribilis and still are going the distance.
“This happened,” proclaimed Keflezighi, “and Boston will happen next year.”