As Wilson Kipsang of Kenya and Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia ran stride for stride into the last stretch of the New York City Marathon on Sunday morning, a long run turned into an unusually personal sprint. As Desisa, the younger challenger, tried to surge ahead, his left arm pushed Kipsang’s arm away.
That turned a windy, tactical race into, well, hand-to-hand combat. And the look on Kipsang’s face said everything. He glared at Desisa. His next move was to dig into his finishing gear and sprint ahead in the final turn of the course in Central Park, a surge that sent him flying through the finish line, seven seconds ahead of Desisa. Only then did his defiance turn into a smile.
But Kipsang said he had not been motivated by anger.
“I didn’t see him because he was coming from behind,” Kipsang said. “Then I decided now to sprint because I saw the finish was very close and the speed was very high. So when he gave me more space, then I would sprint.”
Not only did Kipsang win in his first appearance in the New York City Marathon, in a time of 2 hours 10 minutes 59 seconds, he also captured the World Marathon Majors title with his third major marathon victory in two years.
Had he finished second, he would not have won that $500,000 bonus — and he acknowledged that had been no small part of his motivation at the end.
“Yes, of course I was thinking,” he said. “The only chance for me to win the jackpot was to win this race. That’s why I was feeling very strong and I was trying to apply all the tactics to make sure that I win.”
Desisa, 24, had to settle for a close second, still a remarkable result, in only his fourth career marathon. He won the Boston Marathon last year only about three months after winning the first marathon of his career, in Dubai.
But he was trying to unseat the 32-year-old Kipsang, who held the world record for a year until it was broken at the Berlin Marathon in September.
And Sunday, Desisa found himself compromised in the end, he said, because he needed to use the bathroom.
“I’m not relaxed because of that,” he said, adding that he was “very happy” with second place.
Desisa’s second-place time was 2:11:06. Gebre Gebremariam of Ethiopia, who won this race in 2010, finished third in 2:12:13. The American Meb Keflezighi, who won in 2009, was fourth in 2:13:18. Geoffrey Mutai of Kenya, who won the last two New York City Marathons, was in the lead pack until the final miles but faded to finish sixth.
Keflezighi, a popular former champion who broke long droughts among American men with his victories in New York in 2009 and in Boston this year, finished to huge cheers from the crowd.
“The race was deep, strong, windy and tactical,” he said. “When it is tactical, may the best man or woman win, and he did today.”
The runners were greeted with a sunny day for the marathon, in contrast to Saturday’s rain and gloom, but it was cold and windy for the entire race. The temperatures poked into the mid-40s, and the winds were about 31 miles per hour at the start but gusted to nearly 50.
The contenders formed a large pack for much of the race. It was 17 strong until they crossed the Pulaski Bridge into Queens, when the strongest runners began to push the pace and the pack shrank to 11.
It stayed just about that size into Manhattan as Keflezighi took turns in the lead with Kipsang, Mutai, Peter Kirui and Lusapho April.
As the leaders raced into a strong headwind on that long stretch, the pace slowed.
“I am used to a much faster race from the start,” Kipsang said. “So when it comes to a race like this, you find that it is more tricky. There are no pacemakers; there’s a lot of wind; guys are not ready to take the lead. So you have to exercise patience. If you want to take off, it’s a bit too hard. Everybody was trying to run from behind.”
It was not until Mile 21 that Kipsang put on a move that stretched the pack, with only Mutai, Gebremariam and Desisa able to hang with him. Keflezighi and Kirui fell off the pace, along with the reigning Olympic champion, Stephen Kiprotich.
That contending pack dwindled to Kipsang and Desisa as they began their two-man battle in Mile 23. Mutai fell about 10 seconds back at that point, watching a possible third straight title slip from his grasp.
The end turned into a match race, much as the women’s race had about half an hour earlier.
As Kipsang and Desisa made the final turn into Central Park, with only the final 0.2 of the 26.2 miles remaining, they showed a contrast in styles. Kipsang ran calmly, with a cool expression. Desisa flailed his arms wider, trying to find an avenue around Kipsang. He tried to pass on the left and then switched tactics and passed to Kipsang’s right. When he pulled even, his left arm swung out and swept against Kipsang’s arm.
Kipsang sprinted ahead through the final yards, as if answering a final question about his dominance of the past two years.
“I had to save energy for the closing kick,” Kipsang said. “I was trying to check the distance and the amount of energy that was really left.
“I was really very sure of that kind of sprint, even if it was 50 meters. I really trusted myself.”
Kipsang became the first man to win the major marathons in New York, Berlin and London, race officials said.
Correction: November 2, 2014
An earlier version of this article misstated the amount of time between the 2014 Dubai Marathon and the 2014 Boston Maraton. It was about three months, not three weeks.