NEW YORK — With about 24 steps left in her New York City Marathon title defense, Shalane Flanagan mouthed “I love you” and waved her right hand to the Central Park crowd. Then she waved her left and crossed the finish line in third place.
The first person to greet the hunched-over Flanagan was Mary Keitany, holding a towel and carrying a Kenyan flag in her right arm.
Flanagan ran the five-borough race 31 seconds faster than last year, when she became the first U.S. female runner to win in 40 years and kept Keitany from a fourth straight title.
On this day, in optimal weather, Keitany not only regained the New York crown, but she also put together arguably the most impressive final half of a marathon in history. The 36-year-old mother of two clocked 2:22:48 overall and won by 3 minutes, 13 seconds over countrywoman Vivian Cheruiyot. Flanagan was another 20 seconds back.
Ethiopian Lelisa Desisa bagged his first New York title, after two Boston Marathon victories, by outlasting pre-race favorites Shura Kitata (by 1.99 seconds) and defending champion Geoffrey Kamworor (by 26 seconds). Desisa clocked 2:05:59, the second-fastest time in New York’s 48-year history. In many other years, that would be the performance of the day.
Not this time.
Not when Keitany, in running the second-fastest female time in New York history, covered the second half in 66:58. That’s almost nine minutes faster than her first half.
It’s also 29 seconds faster than Paula Radcliffe‘s closing 13.1 miles at the 2003 London Marathon, when she set the world record of 2:15:25, a 26.2-mile mark nobody has been within 90 seconds of since. That time came with the aid of male pacers. New York has no pacers and has the slowest times of the six World Marathon Majors.
The three American women who finished in the top six on Sunday (first time that’s happened in 40 years), were asked to react to Keitany’s split.
“Holy crap,” fourth-place Molly Huddle said.
“The only word for her is incredible,” said Des Linden, Sunday’s sixth-place finisher who in April became the first U.S. female runner to win the Boston Marathon in 33 years.
“I don’t have the physical capability to have an answer for that,” said Flanagan, a 37-year-old, four-time Olympian who is unsure if she will run another marathon.
Last year, Flanagan pulled away from Keitany in the 24th mile and beat her by 61 seconds.
Keitany started the 2017 race as an overwhelming favorite, having won New York the previous three years and, in her previous marathon that spring, clocked the fastest time in a women’s-only race in history in London. Keitany said after her runner-up last year that she incurred a problem the prior afternoon but declined to specify. Keitany’s agent told LetsRun.com that she started her period less than 24 hours before the race.
Keitany said Sunday that she had an infection before this race but did not say when.
“Nothing was special today,” she said in a soft voice. “I was just ready for the race.”
Keitany started in Staten Island on Sunday morning with the most doubt she’s faced since starting her marathon career in 2010.
She lost back-to-back marathons for the first time last fall and spring. In the last two years, Ethiopian Tirunesh Dibaba and Kenyans Gladys Cherono and Cheruiyot became the third-, fourth- and fifth-fastest performers all-time behind Radcliffe and Keitany. Had Keitany’s descent begun?
It had not. Keitany’s incredible second half Sunday included 17th, 18th and 19th miles faster than five minutes. Her 19th mile was 4:55. The top men ran the 19th mile in 4:50.
“I didn’t want to rush at the beginning so that to suffer at the end,” she said. “I wanted to be comfortable throughout the race.”
Flanagan also showed that she is still among the world’s best marathoners. She said after finishing seventh in a miserable Boston Marathon in April that she had contested her hometown marathon for the last time as an elite. She could leave competitive marathoning altogether with this third-place finish.
“I just thought [in the final miles] if this truly is going to be my last race, a podium spot really would be special,” Flanagan said.
She could try to become the first U.S. distance runner to compete in five Olympics in 2020. At 39, she would be the third-oldest female U.S. Olympic runner after marathoners Colleen de Reuck (2004) and Francie Larrieu-Smith (1992), according to the OlyMADMen.
“My heart is leaning towards serving others,” said Flanagan, who as a training group teammate has helped Amy Cragg to a world bronze medal and Shelby Houlihan to the American record in the 5000m in the last 15 months. “It’s become swinging more in that direction than it is in my own running.”
Flanagan’s future in New York could also be impacted by the calendar. Elites may forego the latest fall major marathon next year in preparation for the Olympic Trials on Leap Day 2020. If they make the Olympic team, they could miss the 2020 New York City Marathon as well, given it’s three months after the Tokyo Games.
If Flanagan races trials, she may enter as an underdog for the three-woman Olympic team. Think of the potential field: Linden, Huddle, Cragg and Jordan Hasay, the second-fastest U.S. women’s marathoner of all time who withdrew before last month’s Chicago Marathon with a heel injury.
Meanwhile, Olympic silver medalist Galen Rupp, who is out through the spring marathon season after foot surgery, is the only U.S. man to break 2:11 in the last three years. The top American on Sunday was Jared Ward, who finished sixth, as he did in Rio.
Ward’s time was 2:12:24, making him the second-fastest American for the year but outside the world’s top 250. Bernard Lagat, a 43-year-old, five-time Olympian on the track, was 18th in 2:17:20, qualifying for the Olympic Trials in his marathon debut. It’s not unfathomable that Lagat could make the Olympic team, though he’s only committing at the moment to running New York again at some point.
Paralympian Daniel Romanchuk became the first American to win the men’s wheelchair race, beating three-time winner Marcel Hug of Switzerland by one second in 1:36:21. Romanchuk, 20, also became the youngest male winner in New York history.
Swiss Manuela Schar repeated in the women’s wheelchair division, pulling away from 17-time Paralympic medalist and five-time New York winner Tatyana McFadden by 21 seconds in 1:50:27.
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