With the bells of Old South Church heralding her approach to the finish line, Deena Kastor won the US Women's Olympic Marathon Trials yesterday in 2 hours 29 minutes 35 seconds, executing a conservative race plan to perfection.
During the second half of the race, Kastor steadily erased a nearly two-minute gap between her and front-runner Magdalena Lewy Boulet.
Running past the MIT president's house 23.5 miles into the race, Kastor overtook Lewy Boulet, the eventual second-place finisher (2:30:19).
In the final miles, Blake Russell secured third place, erasing memories of a late collapse and fourth-place finish at the 2004 Trials. As Russell crossed the finish line in 2:32:40, Kastor cheered and pumped her fist, well aware of Russell's history in the event.
Wrapped in American flags, the three newly minted Olympians walked down one side of the finish area, shaking hands and signing autographs.
"It's an absolute honor that this is my third Olympic team," said Kastor, who won bronze in Athens. "We've got a fantastic crew going to Beijing."
While the sight of Kastor crossing the finish line, raising an American flag in her right hand, surprised no one in the large crowds lining Boylston Street, the way the race developed was unexpected.
Lewy Boulet started strong, yet no one responded to her move. Just 3 miles into the race, Lewy Boulet held a 44-second lead. With her long braid bobbing behind, Lewy Boulet ran slightly slower than a 5:30 pace while the rest of the runners strolled along at around a 5:50 pace. The lead was 56 seconds at Mile 4. It was 65 seconds at Mile 5, shortly after the field ran around the first of eight teardrop turnarounds that allowed the runners to gauge the growing separation.
"I definitely stuck to my race plan, but I didn't know that was Magdalena in front or I would have respected the move a little bit more," said Kastor, as she turned toward Lewy Boulet at the postrace news conference. "You were incognito today.
"I did realize it was Magdalena once we hit the first turnaround. I thought, 'No one else is panicking, so I shouldn't panic.' I tried to maintain my cool through the next couple loops, but there were definitely moments where I thought I misjudged the race quite a bit."
Kastor heard people in the crowd shouting out the size of the gap as it grew. The time between leader and 10-runner chase pack was at its largest (1:54) when the marathoners passed Mile 14 on Boylston Street, starting the third of four core loops circling between Back Bay and Cambridge.
Kastor wondered if she would have to settle for second place. Meanwhile, Lewy Boulet thought first place might be within reach as she followed her race plan. A month ago she determined she would be in the best position for a spot on the team if she passed the half-marathon mark at 1:15; Lewy Boulet hit 13.1 miles at 1:14:37.
"I knew the race was not going to come to me," said the Polish-born runner, whose finish time set a personal record. "I had to go get it . . . For a moment, I thought I was going to win. I thought if I could keep it up, I could bring it home. But I knew Deena was coming."
With stiff winds coming off the Charles River and shifting unpredictably, runners in the chase pack, including Kastor, were reluctant to expose themselves to the conditions and push the pace. Every time she tucked behind runners to shield herself from the wind, Kastor could sense the pack setting back into a slower pace. But crossing the Massachusetts Avenue bridge for the third time between miles 15 and 16, Kastor started to separate herself from the pack and chase down Lewy Boulet.
Just after Mile 16, Russell moved into sole possession of third place. As the top two runners set out for the fourth and final loop, Kastor was clearly running at a clip fast enough to catch a slowing Lewy Boulet.
When Kastor claimed the lead with 2:14:50 elapsed, Lewy Boulet could not respond. But the woman who led the majority of the race knew she already had reached her goal - a spot on the Olympic team. Kastor cruised to victory in a far-from-taxing effort she hopes will allow her to resume intense training for Beijing soon.
"I felt much more comfortable once I started picking up the pace," said Kastor. "I didn't want to make any abrupt moves because those kind of moves can cost you no matter what the pace is. I wanted to keep everything calculated and smooth. I feel like I did that and executed a great race . . . I wanted to win the race while exerting the least amount of energy."