When she hit halfway in Sunday's New York City Marathon in 1:16:00, Priscah Jeptoo was three-and-a-half minutes behind the leader.
It was at that point that the pre-race favorite, a 29-year-old Kenyan who had the $500,000 World Marathon Majors championships on the line, got down to the business of overtaking leader and eventual runner-up Buzunesh Deba, an Ethiopian who lives in the Bronx, at Mile 24.
Jeptoo crossed the finish line first in 2:25:07, and Deba held on for second in 2:25:56.
The temperature was 46 degrees with a 15-mph headwind during the opening stretch on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. A pack of about 20 women stuck together while Deba and Bronx-based Ethiopian training partner Tigist Tufa shot out front, where they'd remain for the majority of the race.
The chase pack was content to work together until hitting the Queensboro Bridge, when Jeptoo began making a break for it. One of the leaders in the bicycle race told her the size of Deba and Tufa's gap, Jeptoo said at the postrace news conference.
"I started to push," Jeptoo said.
By Mile 17, amid the thunderous crowd support on First Avenue and into the Bronx, there was no longer much of a pack. Jeptoo was clocking sub-5:10 miles to Deba’s steady 5:30s. Tufa would eventually fade to finish eighth.
Deba's strategy was to go out according to the pace she had trained to race, and neither the breezy weather nor the rest of the field's resistance to going with her deterred that effort. When Jeptoo surpassed her in Central Park, Deba said she tried to go with her, but was struggling with stomach cramps.
"I'm so happy," Deba said after her finishing second, just as she did in 2011.
Jelena Prokopcuka, 37, of Latvia, rounded out the podium in third at a 2:27:47. Prokopcuka last raced in New York seven years ago, when she claimed the second of her two NYC wins. Since then she had taken a break to start a family, but was scheduled to compete in last year's race before it was canceled in the wake of Superstorm Sandy. Although the pace of the pack in the beginning was slower than Prokopcuka had planned to race, she said she played it safe because of the conditions.
"I wasn't so confident," she said. "Because of the wind today I decided to run with the big group."
The battle that many thought would play out between Jeptoo and fellow Kenyan Edna Kiplagat never materialized. Kiplagat was also chasing the World Marathon Majors title and needed to beat Jeptoo and finish in the top two on Sunday to take it, but ended up ninth in 2:30:04.
Adriana Nelson, 33, was the top American in a U.S. field that struggled, finishing 13th overall in 2:35:05. Olympians Amy Hastings (20th, 2:42:50) and Janet Bawcom (DNF) faltered after being with the lead pack at halfway.
Jeptoo, who won the 2012 Olympic silver medal with a 2:20:14 personal best, collected $100,000 for winning and a $25,000 time bonus, along with the WMM purse.
"It's a great moment for me,” Jeptoo said. "It is a day I won't forget for the rest of my life."