Retta Feyissa's first Marine Corps Marathon ended around the 14th Street Bridge, when the Ethiopia native halted his bid to win the 2002 race because of pain in his right hamstring.
The 29-year-old Feyissa returned for yesterday's race on a reconfigured course, and this time, as he charged onto the bridge with six miles to go, Feyissa's morning was just getting started.
Over the final six miles of the 26.2-mile race, he and two running mates gradually reeled in Mexico's Salvador Miranda and then caught Carl Rundell, a Michigan-based runner who led for nearly 24 miles. With one last push in the race's final mile, Feyissa separated himself from Rundell's teammate, Terry Shea, opened his only significant lead of the day and crossed the finish line in 2 hours 25 minutes 35 seconds to become the Marine Corps' first African-born winner.
Feyissa's winning time was the third slowest in the race's 29-year history, due in no small part to a blazing sun and temperatures that climbed into the high 70s. According to Capt. Bruce Adams, the marathon medical director, approximately 45 people were taken to area hospitals with heat-related illnesses and dehydration, which is about four times as many as last year.
But after making amends for his disappointment in 2002, Feyissa was worried about neither the heat nor his winning time.
"That's why I'm coming back, to try to win," he said. "My dream is to win the Marine Corps Marathon. My dream is coming true today."
Mary Kate Bailey, a 29-year-old Marine captain from Arlington, won the women's race in 2:48:31, almost three minutes ahead of Kim Fagen of San Diego.
Nearly 17,000 runners started the race, heading north on Route 110 in Arlington for the first time due to changes in the course. Rundell, one of three starters from the prestigious Hansons-Brooks Distance Project, grabbed the lead immediately with an aggressive pace, stretching his advantage to well over 90 seconds as the field ran over the Key Bridge, in and out of Rock Creek Park and along the Mall.
The 36-year-old was aiming to run a 2:20 marathon, and despite the heat he clung to that pace through the halfway point.
But Miranda, a 33-year-old Mexican marine, had broken with the trailing pack at around Mile 10, and began to slice into Rundell's lead as they skirted the Tidal Basin and ran into East Potomac Park. Miranda twice drew within steps of the leader on the 14th Street Bridge, both times falling back as his hamstrings cramped.
Despite being reduced to an awkward shuffle, Miranda fought through the pain, later explaining through a translator that it would take more to chase him off the course.
"I don't know," he said when asked why he didn't quit. "I'm from Mexico."
Meantime, the drama was building behind the two leaders. Several contenders -- including defending champion Peter Sherry of Great Falls and Hansons-Brooks runner Bob Busquaert -- fell off the pace around the halfway point, and soon Feyissa, Shea and 2002 champion Christopher Juarez clung together as the final stalkers.
While Rundell and Miranda gritted their way across the bridge, the threesome steadily advanced, breezing through a Crystal City street fair while drawing ever closer to the leaders.
By the time they went under a highway overpass just in front of the 24-mile mark, the five runners were separated by a matter of seconds -- a dramatic late-race skirmish that played out on a stretch of deserted asphalt near the Pentagon.
"Five guys, and I knew it was anyone's race," said Juarez, an Air Force major based in San Antonio who said his competitive marathon days may have ended after yesterday's third-place finish. "Unusual, that's the perfect word for it."
Or as Kevin Hanson, who coaches Shea and Rundell, put it, "They all came together in time for the death shuffle."
That closing stretch, though, turned out to be surprisingly painless for Feyissa. He and Shea quickly separated from the other three runners, sharing a bottle of water and swapping the lead several times before the Ethiopian calmly pulled away over the final three-quarters of a mile to win by 22 seconds.
"He was running the race that I tried to run -- minimize exertion as long as possible, find a steady rhythm," Shea said. "He was patient, which is the biggest virtue for a good marathoner."
It was a sweet victory for Feyissa, who had kept pace with eventual champion Juarez before the hamstring problem in 2002 and skipped last year's race because of another injury. Feyissa fled Ethiopia for political reasons in 2001, settling in Washington with the help of Catholic Charities, for which he ran yesterday's race. He was one of 40 runners raising money for the group's four local women and children's shelters; each pledged to raise $1,500.
Feyissa moved to the Bronx last May; he works as a maintenance man for a Catholic nursing home in Manhattan while keeping up his distance running in the city's parks. He said he still dreams of attaining United States citizenship, a task he hoped would be helped by his marathon victory. Many of his other goals focus on athletics -- including, remarkably, a strong finish at next weekend's considerably more competitive New York City Marathon.
A win in New York brings a monetary reward; yesterday's victory earned Feyissa a trophy, dozens of handshakes and a few hugs, including several from ecstatic Catholic Charities employees. That, Feyissa said, was reward enough.
"Marine Corps Marathon, they don't have prize money, but it's a big race," he said. "This is a big marathon, and I won it, you know?"
Special correspondent Kathy Orton contributed to this report.