The pro field for this year’s ING New York City Marathon was arguably the strongest in event history. Stephen Kiprotich of Uganda is the current Olympic and World champion. Tsegaye Kebede of Ethiopia is a two-time London winner (including this year) and a former Chicago champion. Kenya’s Martin Lel had won New York twice in two tries. And yet none of them was the favorite.
Defending New York champion Geoffrey Mutai has never represented his country at an Olympics, and he dropped out of London and Boston in his most recent races there. Yet he exuded a quiet confidence at pre-race appearances, smiling while answering questions about his training partners Wilson Kipsang, who recently broke the world record in Berlin, and Dennis Kimetto, who broke the course record in Chicago. Was Mutai merely the favorite by association?
He ran in a gradually dwindling phalanx of men for mile after windy, hilly mile through Brooklyn and Queens. Lel was dropped and would abandon the race at 19 miles. The 2009 champion, Meb Keflezighi of the USA, stopped with acute quadriceps pain—but after a three-minute wait, he continued. “The fans were yelling my name,” he said afterward. “I couldn’t quit.”
With six miles left, eight men still ran with Mutai, who was being treated like a Tour de France patron—the alpha male who sets the race’s tone and tempo. Kiprotich and Kebede were there, as were five Kenyans—Julius Arile, Jackson Kiprop, Stanley Biwott, Wesley Korir, and Peter Kirui. Running lightly and calm-faced among them was Lusapho April of South Africa.
Kebede pressed the pace at 20 miles, and the group elongated. But then Mutai chose his moment to surge, and, the race was broken open. Biwott briefly ran beside Mutai, who kindly gave him a drink from his bottle. But when Biwott dropped a step back, Mutai broke the contact. “After that, I focused,” he would say.
All the predictions were then proved accurate. Mutai had so much in reserve that he appeared freer and more comfortable at the new, faster speed. He no longer looked down at the road but up and ahead, clearly untroubled, drawing farther and farther away.
He broke the tape for his second straight New York victory in 2:08:24—more than three minutes off his course record, but remarkable given the 17-mile-per-hour headwinds for most of the race. Kebede, a master of timing, passed everyone else to take second—one place higher than in 2011—in 2:09:16. The surprising April moved up past the fading Biwott to claim third.
Kebede’s finish secured him the 2012–13 World Marathon Majors title—only Kiprotich, who finished 12th, had also been in contention—and a total of $575,000: the $500,000 WMM prize plus $60,000 for second place and a time bonus.
Mutai won $125,000—the winner’s $100,000 plus a time bonus—but the race itself clearly had its own value for him. “This is harder than 2011,” he said after getting out of the cold and wind. “To win and defend your title is not easy.”