Tergat tops Ramaala in closest NYC Marathon

Kenyan earns win by .32 of a second

Latvian claims women's race



NEW YORK -- Susan Chepkemei threw up, looked over her shoulder and kept running. Hendrick Ramaala threw himself across the finish line, fell down and lay spread-eagled on the timing mat.

Both had been winning the New York City Marathon.

Both lost.

"In my wildest dreams, I don't know that I thought we'd see races like that," first-year race director Mary Wittenberg said.

After 26.2 miles, the men's race came down to a sprint. World record-holder Paul Tergat of Kenya outkicked Ramaala, the defending New York champion from South Africa, in the last few steps in the closest finish in the race's 36-year history.

Tergat, 36, won his New York debut in 2 hours, 9 minutes, 29.9 seconds. Ramaala, 33, finished in 2:09:30.22.

"You know, coming in second is not nice," Ramaala said.

Chepkemei, of Kenya, knows all about it. She finished second (2:24:55) for the second consecutive year, this time to Latvian Jelena Prokopcuka, who won New York for the first time in 2:24:41. Last year, world record-holder Paula Radcliffe beat Chepkemei by 3 seconds.

Chepkemei had the lead, appeared confident and was pushing the pace with 3 miles to go. Then she started to throw up. She kept running but slowed and twisted to look back over her shoulder.

Prokopcuka was there, gaining.

"I lost some seconds," said Chepkemei, 30. "That's why she came closer and closer."

"Yes, I saw her," Prokopcuka said through an interpreter. "I got confident I could win."

She caught Chepkemei and hung off her shoulder. Then she pulled away.

"It's great, brilliant, excellent," said Prokopcuka, 29, who won $160,000. "A very big success in my running career."

Earlier this year, Prokopcuka won the Osaka Marathon in 2:22:56. She is a four-time Olympian and holds Latvian records at 10 distances, including the marathon. Last year, she finished fifth in New York in 2:26:51.

The drama overshadowed the good showing by the American men, who had two runners in the top five for the first time since 1993.

Meb Keflezighi of Mammoth Lakes, Calif., dueled with the leaders before falling back in the last mile and finishing third (2:09:56). Keflezighi, the 2004 Olympic silver medalist, finished second last year at New York but an injury limited his training this year.

Abdi Abdirahman of Tucson, Ariz., was fifth (2:11:24).

Keflezighi, 30, had hoped to become the first American to win since Alberto Salazar in 1982.

"With a mile to go, I saw my training partner," Keflezighi said. "He said, `Come on, get there.' Both of my calves tied up. I couldn't make the move and couldn't accelerate.

"I thought I could pull it off, but, hey, third is not bad."

Tergat hung back, stalking the frontrunners for much of the race. When the pack came off the Queensborough Bridge onto First Avenue in the 16th mile, Ramaala bolted. He ran the 17th mile in 4:22, with Keflezighi, Tergat and Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot of Kenya (who finished fourth) hanging on.

The four regrouped, running sedately through the next 6 miles. Cheruiyot dropped off first, then Keflezighi.

But Tergat still ran easily alongside Ramaala as the two entered Central Park for the final push.

"When he came back after the first [surge], I knew we were in for a tough race, because I thought he was broken," Ramaala said. "I knew it was going to be very difficult to break him again."

The two ran together for the last mile, then the last half-mile.

"I gave myself a chance," Ramaala said. "I thought I would get it, but I knew it was going to be hard, if not impossible."

"The last thing I was expecting is that we were going to have to sprint to the finish," Tergat said.

"We couldn't break each other," Ramaala said. "Meb tried, Paul tried, I tried, but it was not working."

Only 100 meters remained.

"Who wants to go the last 100 meters with Paul?" Ramaala said. "I gave it everything. That's it."

Tergat pulled ahead, breaking the tape. Ramaala lunged across the finish line. Did he dive? Collapse?

"I don't remember," he said.

Tergat, who finished 10th in the Olympic marathon and fifth in London this spring, raised his arms in triumph.

"The feeling was so exciting," said Tergat, who won $125,000. "Winning here for me, it gives me a lot of motivation. I'm focused again."

Notes -- Yesterday's race wasn't the first time Paul Tergat had a close finish. In the 10,000 meters at the 2000 Olympics, Haile Gebrselassie barely outkicked Tergat for the gold medal. "It reminds me of the Olympics again, but I was not expecting that in a marathon, that sprint," Tergat said. ... Jen Rhines, the top American woman, finished 18th in 2:37:08. "I didn't have a good day," Rhines said. "I never felt good out there."

Lori Riley writes for The Hartford Courant.

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