They came through the halfway point in a pack of nine, 70 seconds behind the leader. By the time they hit the "One Mile to Go" sign in Kenmore Square, they were in a tug of war for the laurel wreath. One would yank on the rope, and the other would falter. Then, the reverse. Who would finally pull the other over the dividing line between first and second, between winning and ... winning?
In the end, Caroline Kilel of Kenya executed one final, unanswerable tug with about 100 meters to go, breaking the tape in 2:22:36 to win the 115th Boston Marathon. Just two seconds back, little-heralded Desiree Davila crossed the line in 2:22:38. "I'm very happy because I won this Boston," said Kilel, a 30-year-old veteran whose time was a personal best and the fourth-fastest ever run on this course. "Maybe if you will invite me next year I will be here again."
Finishing third was Sharon Cherop of Kenya, in 2:22:42. American Kara Goucher, coming back from giving birth 6 1/2 months ago, was fifth in 2:24:52, a personal best by just over a minute. Indeed, most of the top 10 women ran personal bests on a day that offered ideal conditions on the point-to-point course: 49 degrees with a 21-mph tailwind at the start.
Winning the women's masters division was Larisa Zyusko, 41, of Moscow, in 2:34:22. Joan Samuelson, running Boston for the first time in 18 years, posted a time of 2:51:29, running with the first wave of the masses.
It was the fourth consecutive year that the women's race of the Boston Marathon was a thriller decided by three seconds or less. But for the first time in memory, it was an American who came just two ticks of the clock from victory, and don't think the huge crowds lining the course didn't notice.
"It was the most incredible experience in my career," said Davila, whose 2:22:38 is the fastest time by an American ever on this course, makes her the third-fastest American woman in history, and continues her streak of running a personal best in every marathon she enters. "The last six miles of the race, it was USA! USA!"
The first 15 miles of the race, however, were all New Zealand, by way of Providence, R.I. Kim Smith, a four-time NCAA champion at Providence College who finished ninth at 10,000 meters in the 2008 Olympics, came up to Boston in the best shape of her life, and had been saying for days that she planned to go for it. She wasn't kidding, bolting at the sound of the gun and building an immediate 20-meter lead on the pack.
By 5 kilometers she was 30 seconds ahead - her 16:41 faster than Margaret Okayo's 5K split when she set the course record - and enjoying a solo run common on a Sunday in March but seldom seen on this Monday in April. Around this time, the pack began to get edgy about whether to give chase, but quickly settled down.
"I felt like she was going to get reeled in," said Davila.
By halfway, Smith had built her lead to 70 seconds, and was looking strong when, inexplicably, her left leg buckled. She lurched, righting herself, only to stumble again. For several miles, the 29-year-old Kiwi tried to alter her stride, battling the spasm in her leg and the ache in her heart. She had never been so fit, and now it was all a waste.
"I felt great all the way," she said afterward, dejected and battling tears. "I felt great when I stopped. It got to the point where I physically couldn't do it anymore."
By Mile 18, a pack of four caught up. Smith dropped out soon after.
Those four - Kilel, Cherop, Alice Timbilili and 2008 Boston Marathon champion Dire Tune - had barely begun to settle in when an unexpected guest began pulling into view, and soon Davila would not only join them but decide to host the party, taking the lead and pressing the pace.
At 20 miles, near the top of Heartbreak Hill, Tune dropped back. Now Timbilili began to labor, and soon the pack was down to three. Davila, who calls herself a pure marathoner but still has the speed to make the World Indoor Championships team at 3000 meters last year, seemed to take control.
Just past Coolidge Corner, with about two miles to go, the trio hit a slight incline and Kilel surged. Davila looked as if she was about meet the same fate as Tune and Timbilili, but she skipped a fluid station and fearlessly caught up, then pressed the pace yet again. The process repeated itself.
"I was really just trying to keep contact," she said. "I didn't want anyone to settle, so it was a back and forth any time the pace got soft."
Then, rounding the turn onto Hereford Street - just the spot where Goucher lost contact two years ago - Davila made a decisive move, storming around the corner. By next turn, onto Boylston, Kilel had done the same to her. Did Davila have anything left?
She did. With about 500 meters to go, Davila took the lead and the wildly cheering crowd on the homestretch had reason to believe the Boston Marathon would have its first female American winner since 1985.
"The last 800 meters, my legs were fried," Davila said. "I kept thinking, keep contact, keep contact. You keep bargaining with yourself, I feel happy, this is good, but then no, I worked too damn hard."
But one last surge by Kilel, with 250 meters remaining, put the laurel wreath on the head of the gutsy Kenyan. In a February interview, Davila - who trains with the Hanson-Brooks Distance Project in Rochester Hills, Mich., was asked if it bothered her that she continued to fly under the radar despite marathon achievements that included a 2:26:20 at the Bank of New York Chicago Marathon last fall that made her the #1 U.S. marathoner of the year. On the contrary, she said: "I like to surprise people."
Not likely again. In her tug-of-war with Kilel, the dividing line indeed fell between winning and ... winning.
- By Barbara Huebner
- Barbara Huebner has covered the Boston Marathon for the past 19 years, first for the Boston Globe and now as a freelance writer and consultant.