NEW YORK – Kenya's Paul Tergat held off defending champion Hendrick Ramaala (search) of South Africa in a final sprint Sunday to win the men's title in the New York City Marathon (search).
Women's winner Jelena Prokopcuka of Latvia had a slightly easier time, pulling away from struggling Kenyan Susan Chepkemei as they re-entered Central Park (search) and winning by 14 seconds to earn a marathon-record prize of $130,000.
Tergat edged ahead in the final strides of the 26.2-mile race to win in 2 hours, 9 minutes, 30 seconds. Ramaala, who fell to the ground after crossing the finish line, was a second behind — the closest finish in race history.
Meb Keflezighi, who was second last year in New York and a silver medalist at the 2004 Athens Olympics, fell behind in the final mile and finished third in 2:09.56 — barely failing again to end what is now a 24-year U.S. victory drought in New York.
Prokopcuka, who dropped back by 18 seconds with about 5 miles left, rallied to catch the leaders and then passed Chepkemei on their first trip through the park. Chepkemei, who was stumbling and spitting up, managed to hold on for second place for the third time in New York.
Prokopcuka (pronounced Pro-kop-CHU-ka) never had won a major marathon before, though she was fifth in her New York debut last year. Her winning time was 2:24:41.
Prokopcuka fought through pain in her side halfway through the race.
"I thought it was over. (But) I saw Susan get sick, then I thought I could win," she said. "I was famous already in Latvia, after this even more famous. This is a big victory for such a small country."
The top American woman was Marie Davenport, a native of Ireland who attended Providence and now lives in Guilford, Conn. She finished 16th in 2:33:59. Jen Rhines was 18th in 2:37:07.
The women's lead pack was narrowed to three runners — Chepkemei and fellow Kenyan Salina Kosgei, and Ethiopia's Derartu Tulu — as the race passed the 21-mile mark and headed back into Manhattan from the Bronx.
Prokopcuka fell behind as the three Africans traded the lead through Harlem. A spectator with an Ethiopian flag ran alonside Tulu on Fifth Avenue, then gave up after a block.
The Latvian surged into the lead as she and Chepkemei raced down Central Park South, and then back into the leaf-strewn streets of the park. After crossing the finish line, she threw her arms in the air and blew kisses to the crowd.
The 36-year-old Tergat, one of 17 children, is the ninth straight African man to win in New York. Up until Sunday, his only win in a major marathon was at the 2003 Berlin Marathon, where he set the marathon world record of 2:04:55.
A 17-man lead pack at the halfway mark, on the Pulaski Bridge that connects Brooklyn to Queens, was winnowed to three in the final miles. Ramaala made several surges, but failed to shake Tergat.
Ramaala and Tergat battled for the lead in the final few meters, with Tergat's final surge barely enough to win.
"I never had as close a finish as this in any race, Olympics or any race," Tergat said. "On the last stretch, I knew that I had to kick in strong to win."