Even though marathon running could be defined as the ultimate individual sport, teamwork ended up being the key Sunday for James Kirwa and Jeffrey Eggleston in conquering the Pittsburgh Marathon.
Kirwa, originally from Kenya and residing in Durango, Colo., won the race with a time of 2 hours, 14 minutes, 9 seconds -- the fastest time the race has seen since its return in 2009.
Eggleston, an American and last year's winner, finished second in 2:14:26.
Kenyan Nixon Kiplagat dominated the majority of the race, leading for more than 20 miles. Often, Kiplagat's lead was so big that he couldn't even see the runners behind him.
Kirwa and Eggleston slowly caught up with the leader, and eventually passed Kiplagat just after the 25th mile marker. Kiplagat finished third in 2:14:46.
"Someone told me I was like 40 seconds behind, then 30 seconds. I was closing the gap," Kirwa said. "All of a sudden, [I saw him] and said, 'Oh man, this is the guy.' "
Kirwa and Eggleston, who are good friends, started the race together toward the back of the pack. Eggleston even said he was initially confused as to whether he was running with marathoners or half-marathoners. When the two races split, that's when he realized his group wasn't in the marathon lead.
Eggleston said he and Kirwa decided to stay together and try and catch the lead group.
Meanwhile, Kiplagat had built up a lead that extended to over two minutes at certain points over the second half of the course.
"It was the Nixon Kiplagat show for 20 miles, but finally we saw this little guy off in the distance and we were like, 'Well, I guess he's the leader, the press truck is up there,' " Eggleston said. "We just tried to work up to catching him."
Around the 17th mile, Kiplagat started to develop some cramping in his right abdomen. His splits weren't noticeably affected, but it allowed Kirwa and Eggleston to creep up on him. After the race, Kiplagat said his goal was to finish in 2:10, and the cramping prevented him from doing so.
As Kirwa and Eggleston approached Kiplagat coming into the final mile, Kirwa was able to accelerate a little bit quicker than Eggleston, and cruised down the Boulevard of the Allies for his first Pittsburgh Marathon victory.
Eggleston and Kirwa both agreed that there were no hard feelings over who got the gold medal.
"After I finished the race, I looked back and saw Jeff got [second]," Kirwa said. "I was real happy for Jeff and he's real happy for me, too. He's my homeboy. Everything is fine."
While Kirwa made his move a mile before the finish line, women's winner Malika Mejdoub of Morocco had to sweat it out until the very end. She took home the women's gold medal with a time of 2:39:31, barely edging out Ethiopian Alemtsehay Misganaw, who finished in 2:39:32. Hirut Beyene, also of Ethiopia, finished third in 2:39:56.
Mejdoub, who won the half-marathon last year, led for most of the race but had to fend off a late challenge from Misganaw.
"I knew I was going to finish stronger than her, because I have a better finish than her," Mejdoub said.
Kirwa and Mejdoub will take home $8,000 apiece for their victories. The second-place finishers will receive $6,000 apiece, with Eggleston pocketing another $1,000 as the top American in the field.
Despite weather that was nearly perfect early in the day, the top runners still finished a few minutes off their personal bests. Race director Patrice Matamoros said she wasn't surprised, given the nature of the course.
"The course is a little more difficult with the hills, so you anticipate a bit of a slowdown, but not much," she said.
This year marked the first time since the race returned that there was no rain. The race started with temperatures in the mid-50s and ended in the high-70s.
That weather, as well as a prolonged downhill finish, contributed to a pair of race records being set in the half-marathon.
For the men, Kenya's Julius Koskei finished in 1:02:57, besting the race record of 1:03:38 set by Nicholas Kurgat, also of Kenya.
Ethiopia's Fatuma Sado finished tops in the women's division with a time of 1:12:43. That time broke the race record of 1:14:26, set last year by Mejdoub.
Koskei and Sado will receive $5,000 each for their wins.
Sam Werner: email@example.com or Twitter @SWernerPG. First Published May 7, 2012 12:00 AM