She couldn't have known when she departed the little town, the sun searing down on her, all the footsteps of Pheidippides ahead. She couldn't have known at the race's midway point, with 10 runners still ahead of her.

By the time she arrived in the grand old stadium -- having traversed across mythology, over the original marathon course -- she had simply lost track. Japan's Mizuki Noguchi was first. Kenya's Catherine Ndereba was second. Only when the public address announcer said the words -- Deena Kastor, United States, third -- did the realization come to her. So, in those final strides to the finish line on the cinder-colored track in the stadium where the Olympics were reborn more than a century ago, she sobbed, because a bronze medal awaited.

"I lost all my emotions," said Kastor after winning the first U.S. medal in the Olympic marathon since Joan Benoit took gold in 1984 in Los Angeles. "I couldn't contain myself."

With the notable exception of the men's 100 meters -- won by U.S. sprinter Justin Gatlin in 9.85 seconds, with teammate Maurice Greene third -- Sunday was a day of both anticipated and unimaginable prominence for American women. The unbeaten softball team won its eighth straight game, still without allowing a run, and moved into Monday's gold medal game against Australia. Both beach volleyball pairs advanced to Monday's semifinals, where the friendly rivals will face each other.

And Courtney Kupets of Gaithersburg, who overcame a potentially career-ending injury a year ago, won a bronze medal on the uneven bars in the gymnastics apparatus finals. Teammate Terin Humphrey won silver in the event, and Annia Hatch added a silver on the vault.

Each of those accomplishments was significant, but none could match the drama of Noguchi, Ndereba and Kastor entering Panathinaiko Stadium, where the modern Olympics were first held in 1896. These are the moments those in the Olympic movement dreamed of when they awarded the Games to this ancient city. The women's marathon departed its namesake village in the oppressive early evening heat, passing a combination of ancient and modern -- the hills of eastern Attica, vegetable stands, a sneaker store called Planet Sport, around the shores of Marathon Lake.

The route the women traveled is the same Pheidippides is said to have run nearly 2,500 years ago to deliver the news that the Athenians, led by their general, Miltiades, had overcome the mighty Persians. This was how messages, even of this magnitude, were delivered in such times, by running more than 20 or 50 or 100 miles, and yelling to the townspeople upon arrival. When Pheidippides reached Athens -- "Rejoice! We conquer!" he cried -- he fell dead.

Kastor's accomplishment came within that framework, providing as poignant an image as these Olympics can provide. As she took each stride, the history enveloped her.

"It was with me every step of the way," Kastor said. "You can't deny it."

At 31, an avid reader and writer of poetry and short fiction, she is old enough and wise enough to take it all in, to understand what it meant. The site of the Parthenon, illuminated above her as she ran into the city, was striking, she said.

"I think that having the race here played to the advantage of someone like Deena, who is so thoughtful, so cerebral and understands the significance of this," said Craig Masback, the chief executive of USA Track and Field. "However important an Olympics -- maybe the only chance at an Olympic medal -- would be, I think her tears in the homestretch were all about where this was taking place as much as what was taking place."

Kastor had little hope of catching Noguchi, who led from the midway point and posted the most significant victory of her career, finishing the 26.2-mile course in 2 hours 26 minutes 20 seconds. Kastor couldn't catch Ndereba, the reigning world champion and three-time winner of the Boston Marathon, who finished 12 seconds behind.

But she caught everyone else. She had drawn up a calendar that accounted for each of her days over the past year. She had trained at Mammoth Mountain in California, running at high altitudes in layers -- sweat shirts, sweat pants -- despite heat that rose to the high eighties. She had run up hills -- "Learning to attack them," said her husband, Andrew -- all with this day in mind.

So when she started the race well back in the pack -- after three miles, she was 28th in a field of 82 -- those who knew her understood there was little reason for concern. The plan was clear. Let others run away, then track them down.

"I think her goal going into the race was just pick off, pick off, pick off people as they wilt, if you will," Andrew Kastor said. "I think she feeds off the weakness of other people, and when she sees people falter, she gets charged -- and she goes."

So as the race wound down from the hills of Attica, Kastor moved forward. By the midway point, she was 11th. The plan that had been put in place -- to cover this epic course carefully, conscientiously -- was working. Even as others faltered, Kastor's force of will began to take over.

"You can have a great coach," said Julia Emmons, who is working with the U.S. distance runners here. "You can have great talent. But you have to have great character. She's got the great character, and that's what made the difference."

The character was needed given the conditions, with temperatures well above 90 degrees at the start. Sixteen runners failed to finish. Paula Radcliffe of Britain, the world record holder in the women's marathon, was running in third place with less than five miles to go. But to the great disappointment of hundreds of British fans watching on a giant television in the stadium -- not to mention those lining the last few miles of the course clutching Union Jacks -- Radcliffe stopped running, bent to clutch her knees, tried to start again, and finally sat down, tears rolling down her cheeks. She did not finish.

Kastor would have none of that. As the race wore on, she grew faster, not slower. Though they could only see the portion of the race that unfolded on the giant screen -- and for the longest time, it focused on Noguchi, Ndereba, Radcliffe and Ethiopian Elfenesh Alemu -- Kastor's family members had a sense about them.

"I knew it was going to be a big day," Andrew Kastor said. "I just didn't know how big."

When Benoit, who is now Joan Benoit Samuelson, won her gold in 1984 in the first Olympic marathon for women, Americans were used to having successful distance runners of both sexes. But the last American man or woman to win either of the country's premier marathons -- Boston or New York -- was Lisa Larsen Weidenbach, who won in Boston in 1985. No American, male or female, has won an Olympic medal in that time.

"It's been a while, but Deena was the one I saw who could to it," Samuelson said in a telephone interview from her home in Freeport, Maine. "She has the focus, the work ethic, the body type, the intelligence -- the whole package."

Last year, just two years after she made her marathon debut in New York, Kastor broke Samuelson's 17-year-old American record. She seemed ready for this.

Just four minutes from the finish line, she was on the heels of Alemu, who looked back in a combination of shock and horror. Kastor kept moving past, though she didn't know what place she was in. When she entered the stadium, she heard those words -- third place, which meant bronze medal -- and she ran the last lap around the track with the tears on her cheeks. After the finish, she raised her arms to the heavens, then fell to her knees, slapping the ground where the Olympics began.

Moments later, she found her husband in the stands. Four years ago, she had packed her then-boyfriend a care package before he left on a trip. In it, she hid a note. "I love you," it read simply. Yet its importance grew. The pair made a sport of hiding the note in each other's belongings. Occasionally, they have gone months without discovering it.

When Andrew was finally able to lean out of the stands at the old stadium and give his wife a kiss -- her moment already overwhelming enough -- he subtly pulled out the note and slipped it to her.

"I had tears when she had tears," Samuelson said. "I felt her joy. This definitely puts American distance running back up there with the top nations in the world."

Deena Kastor weeps as she crosses the finish of the marathon in third place, becoming the first American since 1984 to earn an Olympic medal in the event.Gymnast Annia Hatch, a dual citizen of the United States and Cuba, wins the silver medal for the United States in the vault competition.Courtney Kupets of Gaithersburg, center, the bronze medal winner in the uneven bars, poses with teammate Terin Humphrey, left, who won silver, and winner Emilie Lepennec of France.Pitcher Lisa Fernandez leads the U.S. softball team to its eighth straight win in Athens.