BARCELONA, Spain -- The last two miles of the women's Olympic marathon yesterday were uphill, a fitting metaphor for the 26.2-mile race run in fiendish heat and humidity. The survivors said they felt triumphant even if they had not won medals.
For gold medalist Valentina Yegorova of the Unified Team, representing the Commonwealth of Independent States, the uphill finish was a fitting climax to what had been an uphill battle with Yuko Arimori of Japan. Those two provided a riveting finish to a race that had begun in the heat of Barcelona's twilight.
Arimori stayed back in the early stages, then pounced on the lead pack as it was breaking apart. Runner after runner dropped off the pace as the heat, humidity and smog took a toll. Arimori moved up and caught Yegorova in front of the huge statue of Christopher Columbus, facing the Mediterranean and the city's gently curving bay.
In any other race, it would have been a memorable moment, possibly a turning point. Arimori hardly noticed it. "I was thinking of the race," she said. "There was no space in my head to think of it."
From there, the two runners worked in tandem, padding through the city streets, wending their way inexorably up the slopes of Montjuic, on top of which is the stadium.
For months, marathoners had talked about that last, uphill portion of the Olympic race. Many had criticized it and all had dreaded it, coming as it does, so cruelly at the end of a difficult and taxing race.
But there Yegorova and Arimori began their duel, on the hill. At first the Russian ran slightly ahead and Arimori seemed content to follow. Then, inexplicably, the Japanese woman surged ahead, as if she were planning to pull away, only to slow down and take her place a few strides ahead of Yegorova.
They ran that way for minutes, surging and slowing. Seeing two runners fighting for the lead with less than a mile to go in a marathon is unusual. Seeing marathoners running at top speed up a hill, in the Olympics, is remarkable.
When the leaders turned into the tunnel leading into the stadium, Yegorova led by several strides. Her arrival was announced by the clapping of volunteers and race workers in the tunnel, and when the Russian emerged into the stadium, the crowd burst into a roar.
Yegorova was entering the first turn when Arimori emerged, causing a sea of Rising Sun flags to ripple in the crowd. No Japanese woman had ever won an Olympic medal in a race of more than 800 meters.
Yegorova's time of 2 hours, 32 minutes, 41 seconds was respectable but not stunning and far off Joan Benoit Samuelson's Olympic record of 2:24:52, set in 1984 in Los Angeles. Arimori was second in 2:32:49, after easing up at the finish.
Behind them was Lorraine Moller of New Zealand, who won the bronze medal in 2:33:59. Moller, 37, represented the older generation. She has been running for 25 years, and running marathons for 13. Moller can remember when the only people jogging through streets were purse snatchers.
L "I run because it's the only thing I can do well," she said.
Many runners suffered with the heat, which registered 86 degrees and 59 percent humidity at race time. Factor in the heat rising from the blacktop and reflected from the buildings of the city, and it was at least 10 degrees hotter.
At least five finishers were carried from the track on stretchers, and Aurora Cunha of Portugal, ranked 14th in the world, was hospitalized last night with breathing problems.
The Americans felt the heat, too.
Francie Larrieu Smith, 39, was with the leaders until about the halfway point, when about five runners broke away from the pack.
"We went out so slowly," she said. "When the change of speed came, it was too sudden for me."
Cathy O'Brien, who won the U.S. Olympic trials race, was the top American finisher. She placed 11th in 2:39:42. Larrieu Smith was 13th in 2:41:09, and Janis Klecker was 22nd in 2:47:17.
O'Brien, 23, of Durham, N.H., has been suffering from a painful heel problem and had a cortisone injection 10 days ago. But, like the other runners here, she wanted to finish.
"I'm happy with my place," O'Brien said. "I did the best I could."