-- This New York City Marathon was about clear vistas. Open streets. Unrestricted opportunity. For the first time, this New York City Marathon was about women starting before men, allowing them their own stretch of road, and while a legally blind woman was among them, not even she had trouble seeing the bigger occasion.
"I am pleased all the way around," American Marla Runyan happily declared when it was all over this afternoon, having finished in fifth place with a time of 2 hours 27 minutes 10 seconds despite being able to see only a blur of runners around her. Runyan's time was well behind the 2:25:56 women's winner Joyce Chepchumba recorded to join men's winner Rodgers Rop in the race's first all-Kenyan sweep, but it was the 10th-fastest marathon time an American woman has ever run and a resounding accomplishment considering how she had to run the race almost completely on feel.
"Finishing fifth in this field was, I thought, a long shot," said Runyan, who suffers from the degenerative Stargardt's Disease. A former Olympian and Paralympian in shorter distances, Runyan was running her first marathon and needed a cyclist alongside to warn her of upcoming water stations and course changes. Yet she seemed to have no trouble adapting, helped perhaps by the women getting their own start for the first time in the marathon's history.
In the past, men and women started simultaneously, leaving the faster women to spend the later stages of the race navigating around slower men like traffic cones. But today, with the men starting a full 35 minutes behind them -- and the approximately 32,000 amateur runners behind them -- all the women had to do was run, watching only for the finish line and each other.
"For me especially, with not being able to distinguish a lot of the time between a male and female, I wouldn't be able to keep track of my competitors" if the race had been formatted the other way, Runyan said. She noted a point around the 18th mile when she had fallen behind the lead pack and then caught back up. "I started to count how many girls were there, to get an idea of what position I was. Had there been men there, I wouldn't have been able to do that."
By that point, the first hazy dot in Runyan's limited vision was likely Chepchumba, whose fluid steps stood out among a half-dozen other runners. By the 20th mile, she was the picture of calm, even as Australia's Kerryn McCann collided with Yugoslavia's Olivera Jevtic, sending both of them sprawling to the pavement. And by the 23rd, she was ready to show some brash determination, peeling off her gloves to begin barreling down Fifth Avenue.
When she finally crossed the finish line to a thundering echo of cheers, she found herself in the unfamiliar position of having to wait for second-place finisher Lyubov Denisova to even come back into sight. Next came Jevtic, who had recovered from her fall to finish third. Then finally, about 17 minutes later came Rop, who recorded a winning time of 2:08:07 but, thanks to the later start, made Chepchumba smile by being the second person that day to break through the winner's tape.
"I like to run with only women, I think it's much better," she said, noting that the format helped her run a smarter race. Prior to today, she had finished in the top four three previous times here, but she had never won. "I've been trying and trying. Finally this time was my great day."
Rop, too, was thrilled. A 26-year-old part-time policeman in Nairobi, he won the Boston Marathon this spring, but was still smarting from finishing third in New York last year after succumbing to cramps. This year, he swore to finish with a push no matter what, and when he began to feel a stitch around the 25-mile mark, he just ignored it, taking advantage of months of speed training to hold off countrymen Christopher Cheboiboch and Laban Kipkemboi in the final mile.
That last year's winner, Ethiopian Tesfaye Jifar, was nowhere in sight after dropping out of the race in the 15th mile with stomach cramps did nothing to dim Rop's victory. He has now won two of the three marathons he has entered, establishing himself as the class of the supremely talented Kenyan field.
"I think it's great for our country to win both men and women," said Rop, who will bring home $120,000 to go with Chepchumba's $105,000. "I think it will bring our country up."
The Americans too, should get a boost, if not quite such a big treasure chest. After years of fading from the front of the marathon pack, the country's distance runners are rebounding, and today Californian Meb Keflezighi's ninth-place time of 2:12:35 made him the highest U.S. men's finisher here since Arturo Barrios placed third in 1994.
Considering he had never before run a marathon, the time was impressive, although even he seemed to later defer to Runyan. Before 1971, women weren't officially allowed to run in this marathon. Today they made their own way.
"Sometimes I'm so focused on my running I don't realize what it means to some people," Runyan said, promising to be back on the marathon circuit again in the coming years.
"I really enjoyed it," she said, and then she laughed, motioning to her aching legs. "At least until the 24th mile."