Geoffrey Mutai did it again. Not at the sub-2:05 course-record pace that looked possible just days ago, and more cautiously than when he set the record in 2011, but the victory was just as emphatic.
Mutai won the 2013 New York City Marathon by 52 seconds, and with his winning time a modest-looking 2:08:24 (and only the second- and third-place finishers also breaking 2:10) the men's race reverted to type: a race of tactical acceleration, a mounting crescendo of drama in which times are almost irrelevant.
The dominant factor through the first 20 miles, a 12-15 mph northwesterly headwind, was unseen. Gusting on the bridges, swirling between buildings, it discouraged heroics. Ryan Vail, the top American finisher, described conditions as "incredibly windy."
Mutai knows he can ride a following wind. He did so to such effect at Boston in 2011 that he ended with the fastest marathon in history, 2:03:02. So Sunday he waited for it to be at his back, unfazed as the 13-man pack shuffled positions around him.
On cue, as the course made its U-turn in the Bronx and headed south, Mutai made the move. It was graceful and deadly. The mountain lion statue they pass on Cat Hill in Central Park must have thought Mutai was family.
"When I start moving, I'm focused," Mutai said after the race. "I don't look back. I tried to call to [fellow Kenyan] Stanley Biwott to accompany me. I say, 'Come with me if you will share, or I'll do it by myself.'
"He came for a while but then he needed a drink. I passed him a bottle, but told him in our language that it was not water, which he wanted. Then he dropped behind and I tried to look forward and focus."
Mutai is so focused at full flight that his head doesn't even move. He could carry a book on it. It's somehow in a different dimension from the flickering legs flying along at 4:45-per-mile pace.
"To win a marathon is easy, but to defend your title is not easy," Mutai said.
It didn't look that way. In the early miles through Brooklyn, he was always close to the front, covering the few tentative moves that came from Peter Kirui, Meb Keflezighi, Augustus Maiyo and Daniele Meucci. The pace at halfway (1:05:06) was almost three minutes slower than in 2011.
At that point Mutai gave it a nudge, and then Tsegaye Kebede did his best to take charge. Kebede had extra motivation in the form of the $500,000 prize for the 2012-13 World Marathon Majors series title.
"I knew that to win the Majors I must beat Stephen Kiprotich. At halfway, I'm looking at him," Kebede said with a laugh after securing the championship. "Then I force the pace."
Mutai's move at 20 miles then put the race on a different level, and Kebede drifted back to fourth. We wondered if his long streak of top finishes had ended. But true to his reputation as a man who is never quite beaten, Kebede bounced back, surged to second, and ran his last mile three seconds faster than Mutai, smiling broadly.
It marks Kebede's 13th top-three finish in a major marathon. Failure for Kebede means fourth at the world championship, where he finished this year in Moscow, his worst result since 2008. He looks on the way to be the most consistent top-level marathoner in modern history.
Mutai and Kebede were odds-on in the top two spots. The surprise was a third-place finish by Lusapho April, a little-known South African. The 31-year-old Lusapho is mature for a new discovery, but he will lift the spirits of a nation whose great marathon tradition seemed to have come to an end. Willie Mtolo won New York in 1992, Hendrick Ramaala in 2004 and Ramaala was a close second in 2005. Since then, nothing.
"I'm happy to run well for South Africa. When I won at Hannover [in a course record and PR 2:08:32 in May], it was the first time I started a marathon fully fit and without problems. I felt then that I can run under 2:09, but I'm happy with third today," he said.
As always happens in New York's races of attrition, some great runners finished in mediocre times, or did not finish at all as in the case of two-time New York champion Martin Lel. Wesley Korir, winner in Boston in 2012, was ninth in 2:11:34, which must still make the Kenyan parliament member at least the world's fastest politician.
Olympic and world champion Stephen Kiprotich was 12th in 2:13:05. Keflezighi, after looking feisty through halfway, had to concede to his injury-interrupted preparation, and finished 20th in 2:23:47.
For Mutai, the greatest pleasure seemed to be adding a third major marathon this fall to the wins by training partners Wilson Kipsang and Dennis Kimetto in Berlin and Chicago, respectively.
"Those are my colleagues," Mutai said. “They are not my rivals. When we win, we congratulate each other a lot. We are happy to prove that we can win without a coach. We share, we discuss, we train together, and we are happy for each other. There is no special system, but we do believe in competition, in shorter races like half marathon."
Looks like the trophy cabinet at their Kapngetuny high-altitude training camp will be getting crowded.