Paula Radcliffe, the woman who made headlines at the Olympics for dropping out of two races, was lauded for her steadiness Sunday.

Thanks to remodeled racing tactics and an attitude makeover, Radcliffe, from Britain, won the 26.2-mile race in 2 hours 23 minutes 10 seconds, finishing four seconds ahead of Susan Chepkemei of Kenya in the closest women's New York City Marathon ever. In the men's race, Olympic silver medalist Meb Keflezighi came in second behind South African Hendrik Ramaala, the best American finish in more than a decade.

"This is a big deal for an American to do so well," said Keflezighi, who finished 25 seconds behind Ramaala in 2:09:53.

"With all the history, we had a lot to overcome."

Radcliffe, the world record holder in the marathon, had to surmount even more.

Little more than two months ago at the Olympics, Radcliffe endured a breakdown that unfolded on international television. In fourth place with three and a half miles left in the marathon, Radcliffe dropped out, sat down and cried on the side of the road, causing British columnists to label her a quitter.

Several days later, she dropped out midway through the 10,000-meter race, citing stomach problems and fatigue. After the race, she burst into tears, stunned. She spent the next several weeks buried in disappointment, only deciding to run in New York 11 days before the race.

"I was never myself," Radcliffe said. "I was empty. I was scattered."

So on Sunday, she vowed to be steady -- in both her racing and her demeanor.

Instead of taking the lead early by herself, as she often does, Radcliffe ran with the lead pack until the final 200 meters.

In the last 10 seconds of the race, her head bobbing as usual and her face pained, Radcliffe proved why her peers refer to her as the premier women's marathoner: Her finishing kick left Chepkemei five paces behind. "The smart thing," Radcliffe said, "was to save a little for the end of the race."

She stayed just as sensible after she won, when interviewers asked if her first-place finish would be a panacea.

"It's going to be very difficult to make up for the Olympics," Radcliffe said.

"It's over now and this is moving on. It's just a case of wanting to get back to being myself, to running and enjoying it. That's the most important thing right now."

"She was strong again," Chepkemei said, "like always."

Keflezighi nearly equaled Radcliffe's performance. Running two marathons in three months for the first time, the 29-year-old American held a very slim lead with a little more than two miles left. His second-place finish, coupled with Ryan Shay's 9th-place run, saved an otherwise disappointing day for the Americans:

Olympic bronze medalist Deena Kastor dropped out of the race at Mile 16 and conceded that, "my body was not ready to do this again"; 10,000-meter veteran Bob Kennedy quit midway because of fatigue and said he was unsure if he'd run another marathon; the top American female finisher, Jenny Crain, finished 15th.

But Keflezighi gave New Yorkers near the finish line a reason to chant, finishing with a personal best despite the difficult course. He fell 200 yards behind the leaders midway through the race, then surged to the lead near the Mile 24 marker.

His lead lasted for about five seconds before Ramaala flew past, seizing an advantage he maintained through the finish line.

"He almost ran the perfect race," Keflezighi said. And it would have been perfect but for one humorous mistake: While celebrating during the final 10 yards, Ramaala lost his way and ran to the side of -- instead of into -- the finish-line tape.

"It's been a long time since I won a race like this," said Ramaala, who coaches himself. "But I got the last burst of speed."

"We were exchanging leads, but it was his day," said Keflezighi, who added that he ran the last 10 miles with the cramp in his side. "I'm just delighted with how I finished. A lot of people doubted me. They said, 'Meb, how can you run again after so little rest? What are you thinking?' Well, now those doubts are answered."

Marathon Notes: Retta Feyissa, who won last week's Marine Corps Marathon in 2:25:35, ran 2:27:29 in New York and finished 29th. . . . More than 37,000 runners registered for the race.

"The smart thing," Paula Radcliffe said of her narrow win, "was to save a little for the end of the race."