NEW YORK — Paul Tergat surged one last time, breaking the tape a heartbeat before defending champion Hendrick Ramaala fell across the finish line.
After more than two hours of running Sunday, the New York City Marathon came down to a final sprint and a third of a second — the closest finish in race history.
Tergat and Ramaala were side by side all morning, trading the lead for 26.2 grueling miles through New York's five boroughs and across fog-shrouded bridges and leaf-strewn roads.
Tergat, a Kenyan who holds the world marathon record, and South Africa's Ramaala jockeyed for the lead in Central Park. Tergat surged, then Ramaala, then Tergat again. Tergat's official time was 2 hours, 9 minutes, 30 seconds, but the exact clocking was 2:09:29.90. Ramaala's time was 2:09:30.22.
It was reminiscent of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, where Tergat and Ethiopia's Haile Gebrselassie sprinted to the finish in the 10,000 meters. Gebrselassie managed one last dash in the final 30 meters, leaning to edge Tergat by nine-hundredths of a second.
This time, Tergat crossed the line first on a warm, sticky day. He was one of 37,516 competitors to start the race, a record for any marathon.
"The weather was incredible, very hot, but I was trying to keep cool. The least thing that I was expecting is that we were going to have to sprint to finish," Tergat said. "It was really, really painful, we work until the last minute. It reminds me of the Olympics again, but I was not expecting that in a marathon, that sprint."
Ramaala wasn't sure whether he tried to dive across the finish line, or simply collapsed from exhaustion.
"I don't remember," he said. "You know, coming in second is not nice."
"The last hundred meters, who wants to go the last hundred meters with Paul? I gave it everything," Ramaala said. "Paul didn't want to lose, I didn't want to lose."
Meb Keflezighi finished third, the best finish by an American. But the U.S. victory drought at the New York race grew to 23 years.
Women's winner Jelena Prokopcuka had a slightly easier time than Tergat.
Prokopcuka, who dropped back by 18 seconds with about 5 miles left, rallied to catch the leaders and then passed Susan 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 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, which started in thick fog. It was 54 degrees and 97 percent humidity at the beginning; by noon, the temperature had risen to 62 degrees in Central Park, while the humidity dropped to 77 percent.
"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 alongside 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-littered streets of the park. After crossing the finish line, she threw her arms in the air and blew kisses to the crowd.
Keflezighi, 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. Fellow American Abdi Abdirahman was fifth and Matt Downin finished 11th.
"With a mile to go, my calf tied up and when they made the move I couldn't accelerate. I thought I could pull it out, but third is not bad," said Keflezighi, who is getting married in two weeks. "I was feeling great the whole way."
The 36-year-old Tergat, one of 17 children, is the ninth straight African man to win in New York. 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.
The victory earned Tergat $125,000. Prokopcuka won a marathon-record $160,000 in the race, whose primary sponsor was Dutch financial services company ING.