Down the stretch, in both the women's and men's professional races, competition in Sunday's New York City Marathon was peeled to the bone. (Just as the wiry, skeletal elite athletes are, their physiques all about the business of speed and endurance.)
Their battles over 26.2 miles -- well ahead of the civilian crowd of 50,000 fellow participants -- went down to the final 0.2 miles to settle things. Not until Kenyans Mary Keitany and Jemima Sumgong were yards from the finish did Keitany pass Sumgong a final time in their frantic, shoulder-to-shoulder dash.
"A few kilometers away, I see if I go, I might win the race," Keitany said. "So I tried my best."
In the men's race, Kenya's Wilson Kipsang and Ethiopia's Lelisa Desisa were even closer to the end when Kipsang, whose year-old world marathon record was eclipsed in September, answered Desisa's desperate passing attempt.
"I said, 'What happened?' " Kipsang said of Desisa suddenly materializing from behind as they slightly bumped elbows. "I decided now to sprint. I was trying to check the distance and the amount of energy I had left. I really trusted myself."
The spindly Keitany -- who is 5-2 and 93 pounds, twice won the London Marathon and left competition last year to give birth to a second child -- won in 2 hours, 25 minutes, 7 seconds, three spare seconds ahead of Sumgong.
That equaled the closest finish for the women in the race's 44 runnings -- Paula Radcliffe over Susan Chepkemei in 2004.
The 6-foot, 137-pound Kipsang's 2:10:55 time was 11 seconds clear of Desisa, which belied the late drama. With 500 yards to go, Desisa, his arms flapping a bit with his effort, squeezed past Kipsang's right shoulder momentarily before Kipsang somehow summoned a sprinter's full kick.
Ethiopia's Gebre Gebremariam, the 2010 New York champ, was third in 2:12:13. Two-time defending champion Geoffrey Mutai of Kenya was sixth. Three Americans finished in the top 10: 2009 New York winner Meb Keflezighi (fourth), Oklahoma State grad Ryan Vail (ninth) and Californian Nick Arciniaga (10th).
Among the women, California native Desiree Linden, a former Boston runner-up, was fifth and Deena Kastor -- the 41-year-old 2004 Olympic bronze medalist, running New York for the first time in eight years -- was 11th.
In both pro divisions, large lead packs stayed intact deep into the races until attrition dwindled the fields down to late duels. Though sightseeing along the route hardly was the purpose of the event, there were the usual big, diverse crowds of spectators and bands adding background music, including a Korean drum group and the Bishop Loughlin High School band, a marathon staple, playing its usual "Rocky" theme.
Runners motored past brownstones and shops, over bridges, patched potholes and miles and miles of asphalt. But it wasn't quite a day like any other New York City Marathon day (the annual running of the humans through Gotham's five boroughs, begun in 1976).
Besides the dramatic finishes among the pros, there was the challenging weather. It was cold and unusually windy -- the mid-30s wind chill was the lesser of the evils -- and gusts up to 45 miles per hour had even the pros resorting to skull caps, arm warmers, gloves and high socks.
"It was difficult," said Portugal's Sara Moreira, who chose to run ahead of the women's pack for 18 miles in her marathon debut and still finished third. "Many things came to my mind, but I tried to focus, focus on the pace and look for information that my body would pass to me, telling me how well I was."
In the end, the always-affable Keflezighi offered a summary:
"The race? Deep. Strong. Windy. Challenging. Wonderful."