By Rachel Cohen
ABOVE PHOTO: Defending champion Meb Keflezighi, left, of the United States, embraces first-place finisher Gebre Gebrmariam, of Ethiopia, at the New York City Marathon in New York, Sunday, Nov. 7, 2010.
(AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
NEW YORK – Gebre Gebremariam saw his country’s greatest marathoner pull up in pain on the Queensboro Bridge, at the 16th mile. He urged Haile Gebrselassie to keep going, but what the world-record holder felt in his right knee told him his career was over, and it was time for a new Ethiopian star.
“I can’t, Gebre. You have to move,” the 37-year-old told Gebremariam as the leaders of the New York City Marathon ran on. “You have to reach them.”
Gebremariam, who started the race certain he couldn’t win it, soon became a believer. The 26-year-old pulled away from Kenya’s Emmanuel Mutai in the 24th mile to win in 2 hours, 8 minutes, 14 seconds, becoming the first man to win New York in his marathon debut since Alberto Salazar in 1980.
Kenya’s Edna Kiplagat was another surprise winner, while Shalane Flanagan, making a marathon debut of her own, became the first American woman in two decades to finish second. But it could be said that the marathon’s greatest display of endurance and determination came hours later.
Edison Pena, who less than a month ago was in a collapsed Chilean mine awaiting rescue, ran and walked on a bad knee to complete the 26.2 miles about 20 minutes ahead of his 6-hour goal. Pena, who jogged regularly underground during the 69-day ordeal, covered the last 12 miles of the race with bags of ice on his swollen knees.
At the finish, the 34-year-old was draped in a Chilean flag as his favorite music — Elvis — played over the speakers.
“I’m here because I want people to feel free,” Pena said. “I want them to strive for their own freedom. That’s why it was worthwhile for me to come this far to run a marathon. … I struggled with myself, I struggled with my own pain, but I made it to the finish line.”
Gebrselassie, the only runner on Earth to finish a marathon in less than 2 hours, 4 minutes, announced his retirement after dropping out of the race. Not even Gebremariam, the 2009 cross-country world champion, expected that he would be the next Ethiopian winner.
“Even I told my wife, ‘I can finish this race, but I can’t win,'” Gebremariam said. “When I saw in 19 or 17 miles, you know, I can win. I saw the pace and listen to my body too, so I can win.”
His wife, Werknesh Kidane, is an elite distance runner herself, who also planned to make her marathon debut in New York. But she had to pull out because of injury and watched the race back in Ethiopia with their two young sons.
“So maybe next year she’ll come and she’ll win too,” Gebremariam said with a smile.
Another Kenyan, Moses Kigen Kipkosgei, was third. Defending champion Meb Keflezighi of the United States finished sixth.
The 31-year-old Kiplagat, who like Gebremariam takes home $130,000, won her first major marathon title in 2:28:20.
“When we were in the 24th mile, I tried to put more effort,” she said. “I found myself pulling away from the field, so I was excited when I reached 25 miles because that’s when I found I was ahead of the other ladies.
“When I crossed the finish line, I was so happy.”
Flanagan, the 2008 Olympic bronze medalist in the 10,000 meters, was 20 seconds back. Kim Jones in 1990 was the last American woman to finish in the top two. With the event doubling as the U.S. women’s championship, Flanagan earned a $40,000 bonus.
“I’m very grateful for second, first of all. But as soon as I finished I thought about what I could have done to have won it,” Flanagan said. “So I think that’s why the marathon is so addicting, because you always want more to do it again.”
Kenya’s Mary Keitany, also making her marathon debut, was third. Defending champion Derartu Tulu of Ethiopia finished 14th.
More than 45,000 runners started the 41st edition of the race through the city’s five boroughs.