NEW YORK -- Before leaving from Ethiopia for New York City to make his marathon debut, Gebre Gebremariam's wife, Werknesh Kidane, offered him a few words of encouragement.
"Just try to finish," said Kidnane, who was supposed to run with her husband until a leg injury forced her out of the race.
Gebremariam did a whole lot better than that.
In his first-ever marathon, Gebremariam left an indelible mark, securing the biggest victory of his career Sunday, capturing the 41st annual ING New York City Marathon. The 26-year-old covered the 26.2-mile course in 2 hours, 8 minutes and 14 seconds. In the process, he became the first man to win New York in his marathon debut since Alberto Salazar in 1980.
"Nobody expected me to win," Gebremariam said. "I'm so, so happy. The finish is good for me."
Emmanuel Mutai, also 26, of Kenya finished second (2:09:18), while 34-year-old Moroccan native Abderrahim Goumri placed third (2:10:31). Gebremariam and Mutai were running side-by-side until the 24th mile, when Gebremariam turned it on, separating himself and cruising from there.
"For me the race was good," Mutai said, "but according to the course it was difficult because it is my first time here in New York. But I was happy with the position I got in as far as finishing. But I tried my best."
Last year's champion, Meb Keflezighi, finished sixth (2:11:38, while American Dathan Ritzenhein placed eighth (2:12:33).
Gebremarian's victory, however, may have been overshadowed by the shocking retirement of world-record holder Haile Gebrselassie.
Gebrselassie, who was considered a heavy favorite on the men's side, pulled out of the race after he injured his right leg around the 16-mile mark. And afterward, in his post-race press conference, he announced he was hanging up his running shoes.
"I never think about to retire. But for the first time, this is the day," Gebrselassie said. "Let me stop and do other work after this. I don't want to complain anymore after this, which means it's better to stop here."
The Ethiopian great stopped on the Queensboro Bridge. Gebrselassie had said before the race that the knee was bothering him. Marathon officials say he had an MRI on Saturday that found fluid and tendinitis in the knee.
The 37-year-old Gebrselassie was making his much-anticipated debut at the NYC Marathon.
In 2008, Gebrselassie set the world record in 2:03:59 in Berlin.
Widely considered the greatest distance runner ever, he's won two Olympics golds and captured eight world titles in events ranging from the 1,500 meters right up to the marathon.
"Haile has been a roll model for me," Keflezighi said. "He's been a great ambassador to the sport. He has nothing left to prove."
Edna Kiplagat won the women's title.
The 31-year-old Kenyan finished the marquee race in 2 hours, 28 minutes, 20 seconds. She pulled away in the 24th mile to win her first major marathon title.
"When we were in the 24th mile, I tried to put more effort," she said. "I found myself pulling away from the field, so I was excited when I reached 25 miles because that's when I found I was ahead of the other ladies.
"When I crossed the finish line, I was so happy."
Shalane Flanagan of the United States was second in the women's race in her marathon debut, finishing in 2 hours, 28 minutes, 40 seconds. The 2008 Olympic bronze medalist in the 10,000 meters became the first American woman to finish in the top two since 1990.
"I'm grateful for second," Flanagan said. "But as I finished I thought about what I could have done to have won it. So I think that's why the marathon is so addicting, because you always want more to do it again."
The 45,344 runners to run on Sunday is a record. Ninety-nine percent will finish the race.
Mike Mazzeo is a regular contributor to ESPNNewYork.com. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.