For 26 miles 385 yards, Joan Benoit ran alone with the crowd and the possibilities. Two hours 22 minutes 42 seconds after she began, she had run a marathon nearly three minutes faster than any other woman in history. Boston and its marathon were hers. Greg Meyer, the men's winner in 2:09, moved away from the podium to let her have her say.

Then, surrounded, Benoit surrendered to the protection of two Boston policemen and a pink blanket. They half-carried, half-escorted her up a flight of stairs through the mob to a waiting car. "May I?" said the more gallant of the two as he bowed deeply and kissed her on the cheek. There were bows and kisses and a wreath, too, for Meyer, who was running his second Boston Marathon. The last time he tried, in 1981, he led at 13 miles and disintegrated at 16. "I let the course destroy me," he said.

He was still a clerk at Bill Rodgers' running store then. Now, on the day he finally emerged from Rodgers' shadow, he was partially eclipsed by Benoit.

Rodgers, a four-time winner in Boston, finished 10th (2:11:58). Ron Tabb of Eugene, Ore., was second. Benji Durden of Stone Mountain, Ga., was third. The top three finishers qualified for the world championship that will be held in Helsinki in August.

Meyer's victory was impressive: He ran down Durden on the Newton Hills 19 miles into the race. He did it the hard way, the strong way.

Benoit's victory was astounding. She did not merely lower the world best, held by Allison Roe and Grete Waitz, she obliterated it. She took 2 minutes 47 seconds off it. "She destroyed marathon competition for five years," said Fred Lebow, director of the New York City Marathon.

Jacqueline Gareau, who finished second, breaking 2:30 for the first time (2:29:27), never saw Benoit after the starting line. Gareau passed Roe around 16 miles and soon after Roe dropped out. "I did not see any little girl like Joanie Benoit," Gareau said. "She's so little. She's like a little ball. She just rolls."

Benoit, 25, who set an American best for 10 kilometers in March, led from the beginning. When did you last see her, Sue King, a top marathoner, was asked. "At dinner," she said.

Benoit's pace, 5:15 a mile for the first 20 miles, below 5:10 for the first 10 miles, was so quick that men along the course told her, "Lady, you better watch it."

They thought she was going too fast. So did she, when she went through 10 miles in 51:38, breaking her own American record (53.18). "It scared me a little," she said.

On Sunday in London, Waitz tied Roe's former best. When Roe called Benoit about it, Benoit said, "I told her, 'Usually when I go to compete, there's somebody I want to run into the ground. Tomorrow, it's run the best race I'm capable of running.' That's exactly what I did."

Benoit, who coaches track at Boston University and lives in Wellesley, Mass., said she would not run another marathon until the Olympic trials. She will concentrate on track events instead. So will Meyer. Though he qualified for the world championship, he said he did not plan to run in Helsinki.

He had been planning on this for so long. Rodgers, his friend and former employer, says Meyer is the second-best all-around distance runner in America, after Alberto Salazar. He can run a four-minute mile. He ran the fastest 10,000 meters in the world (27:53) this year at the Colonial Relays earlier this month. He holds the American 20-kilometer record.

But he has never gotten the recognition. At 27, he is barely recognized outside Boston (he lives in Wellesley). Today was going to make him stand apart from the crowd. For the first time ever he was the favorite in a big race, in Boston. He was pleased as much as anything at his ability to handle that role.

And he was psyched. "Maybe too psyched," he said. He and the others were pleased to allow a young Ethiopian named Abraha Gebrehiwet Aregha, who now lives in Georgia, to set the early pace. He was the first man ever to lead the marathon with a Sony Walkman.

Meyer and Durden stayed close to him. By 10 miles, Durden had taken the lead and the initiative. He kept it for nine miles. Meyer trailed 12 seconds behind him. Others, including Rodgers, lost contact with them completely.

"I thought they would come back," Rodgers said, "but they didn't come back. It's happening more and more . . . I always seem to die in the middle. Maybe all the marathons I've run, the racing I've done, is catching up to me."

At 35, Rodgers had very much wanted to make the world championship team. "I have to plan things differently this year," he said. "Too many races. That, or my age, one of the other is catching up to me."

He even spoke of retiring from marathons. "This is possibly my last marathon. There's a big gap between me and the best marathoners . . . It's frustrating," Rodgers said.

Meyer caught Durden in front of the Newton City Hall, just a little more than 19 miles into the race. They were deep into the fabled hills of the marathon. Meyer knows them well, trains there often. Durden looked back for an instant. A traffic light on the street turned green. Meyer made his move.

"I threw a fake and the fake got me away," he said. "I didn't expect to break away, just let him know I was running behind him."

At 18 miles, Durden led by 12 seconds. At 21 miles, he lagged 16 seconds behind. His blisters and the 2:08 pace they had been maintaining, had taken their toll (Tabb passed him for second place about a mile from the end).

By the top of Heartbreak Hill, Meyer was alone. "I almost cried," he said. "I said, 'All I have to do is go home from here.' I felt good, maybe too good. I saw some faces I knew. There was a little bit too much emotion. I thought, jeez, I'm finally going to do it. What am I going to say when I do it?"

He passed Bill Rodgers' running store at Cleveland Circle. And yes, for just a moment on a cool, cloudy day, the sun came out and shone on his back. "Finally," he said.