A decorated women’s field had slowly come unglued over the final few miles of the New York City Marathon on Sunday, to the point where just two runners remained in the hunt for the title.
Hellen Obiri, a two-time Olympic medalist for Kenya in the 5,000 meters and the reigning Boston Marathon champion, tends to run with ferocious power. She does not run a course so much as she attacks it, all arms and legs and palpable determination.
Letesenbet Gidey, on the other hand, seems to cover the ground beneath her with effortless grace, as if her stride were conceived by the distance-running gods. The women’s world-record holder in the 10,000 meters and an Olympic bronze medalist for Ethiopia, Gidey tucked behind Obiri as the finish line came into view.
Their contrasting styles were on full display as Dathan Ritzenhein, Obiri’s coach with the Boulder, Colo.-based On Athletics Club, watched and worried. Before the race, he had advised Obiri to avoid trying to break away until Mile 24.
“I was very much second-guessing whether or not it was the right strategy at that point,” he said.
Obiri, though, was fearless, and with one final burst of speed before a cheering crowd, she dropped Gidey and charged to a dramatic victory in 2 hours 27 minutes 23 seconds. Gidey finished six seconds back in second place, while Sharon Lokedi of Kenya, who won last year, placed third.
“In a marathon,” Obiri said, “it’s about patience.”
While the women’s race was slow and tactical until the late stages, Tamirat Tola of Ethiopia seized the men’s title by running hard from the start. Tola, who was the world champion in the men’s marathon in 2022, finished in 2:04:58, breaking Geoffrey Mutai’s course record from 2011 by eight seconds. Jemal Yimer, also of Ethiopia, finished second, and Albert Korir of Kenya was third.
Tola had arrived in New York with questions about his fitness after he dropped out of the marathon at the world championships in Budapest this summer. He quelled those concerns as Sunday’s race wore on.
“The people of New York are amazing to give me moral support every kilometer,” said Tola, who added that he had succumbed to a stomach bug in Budapest. “I’m happy.”
Clear skies and mild temperatures greeted a field of about 50,000 athletes who gathered at the base of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge on Staten Island for their annual pilgrimage across the five boroughs.
Among them, Obiri, 33, had redemption in mind. When she made her marathon debut in New York last year, she went out fast before struggling to a sixth-place finish. It turned out to be a punishing experience for a runner unaccustomed to failure.
“My debut here was terrible,” she said, adding: “I didn’t want to come back.”
Ritzenhein recalled that Obiri was so physically and psychologically beat up from the race that he had a hard time getting her to leave her hotel room. But after returning to Boulder, she began training again.
“Sometimes,” Obiri said, “you learn from your mistakes.”
She put those lessons to use in Boston earlier this year when she won her first world marathon major. In the wake of that triumph, Ritzenhein could sense that Obiri felt she had unfinished business in New York.
Sunday’s race was an odd one, though. The top women went out slowly — at least based on their standards — which meant that a large leading pack remained intact well past the halfway point.
“It was a super weird race,” said Kellyn Taylor, who placed eighth as the top American woman. “New York traditionally starts off a little bit slow, and then it picks up the second half. This year, it just seemed to lag.”
In fact, the race in many ways did not start in earnest until the leaders covered Mile 22 in 5:18, which was their fastest mile of the morning — and then it only got faster.
Obiri was among those who proceeded to cover Mile 23 in 5:04. By then, only Obiri, Gidey, Lokedi and two others — Viola Cheptoo, the runner-up in 2021, and Brigid Kosgei, a five-time world marathon major champion — were still in contention.
But those surges took their toll on everyone, including Gidey, who tried hard to stick with Obiri on the race’s final climb in Central Park. Ritzenhein was cautiously optimistic since the overall pace had been slower than Obiri’s long runs in training, he said.
“But you never know,” he said. “And then you could see, at the end, that she had a lot of fuel in her tank.”
With about a quarter-mile to go, Obiri was in a full sprint. She peeked behind her at Gidey, who reached down to tuck her necklace inside the top of her singlet as she tried to muster one final burst of speed that never quite materialized.
Afterward, Obiri said she was hopeful that Kenya would select her to compete in the marathon at the 2024 Olympics in Paris: “I’ve shown that I can do it.”