Sprinting side by side, Ethiopian Dire Tune and Russian Alevtina Biktimirova stared straight ahead, fatigued and focused on the finish less than 400 yards away.
Both women knew what a Boston Marathon victory would mean for their young running careers, for their countries, and for their hopes of competing at the Beijing Olympics this summer.
With so much at stake, the lead switched twice as Tune and Biktimirova turned onto Boylston Street. The last big move belonged to Tune. Summoning all the energy she had left, Tune surged ahead and regained the lead with 150 yards to go. Biktimirova could not respond.
In the closest women's finish in Boston history, Tune claimed her first major win yesterday, in 2 hours, 25 minutes, and 25 seconds. She crossed the finish line, kneeled, and kissed the ground. Biktimirova followed two seconds later, swerving slightly to avoid Tune.
"Coming to the finish, I realized that Biktimirova was very strong," said Tune through a translator. "The only thing that was going through my mind was, 'Even if I collapse at the finish line, I will get the victory.'
"The Boston Marathon is such a big marathon that when I go back to my country and tell people I won here, it will make a big name for me."
Tune, 22, comes from the same Arci region in Ethiopia where many of the country's great distance runners grew up, including the legendary Haile Gebrselassie, who lived less than 10 miles away.
After struggling to find a place among Ethiopia's elite female distance runners and switching between events, Tune has placed more focus on the marathon the last few years.
As the second Ethiopian female to win Boston - after three-time champion Fatuma Roba - Tune hopes her performance will help secure her a spot on the Ethiopian Olympic team. She not know her Olympic fate until she returns home.
"In the last two years, when she started having big wins and setting new personal records, she started thinking big," said Hussein Makke, Tune's manager. "She wants to put her name with the best of the best in Ethiopia like Fatuma Roba and Derartu Tulu.
"She has everything any champion needs. She just needs more time and experience. She's a very, very determined athlete and a fighter."
That was in evidence throughout yesterday's race.
Tune ran a patient race, looking more experienced than someone making her Boston debut. As the lead pack dwindled from 10 to five to three to two, Tune moved with a comfortable rhythm and showed no signs of strain. Approaching Heartbreak Hill, it was just Tune and Biktimirova. While Biktimirova led uphill, Tune stayed tucked behind the Russian.
"When I was not able to run away from her earlier in the race, I conserved my energy to use for a final kick," said Tune. "I tried to pass, but it was a little bit windy. When I go back behind her, she protected me from the wind. I am a smart racer and know how to listen to my body."
As a runner who relies more on strength than speed, Biktimirova, 25, was not as comfortable with the prospect of a sprint to the finish.
"On Heartbreak Hill, I tried to get away," said Biktimirova, through a translator. "I was leaning forward and trying to push it. I am a good uphill runner. I tried several times to make a move on the hills."
Running downhill on Beacon Street toward Coolidge Corner, Tune briefly took the lead. It was less than a minute before Biktimirova surged in front again.
Then Tune pulled even and the pair ran shoulder-to-shoulder into Kenmore Square.
Upon spotting a sign that announced there was 1 mile to go, Biktimirova pushed the pace, hoping for separation. There wasn't any significant gap until a miscue by Tune that could have cost her the race.
Making the right onto Hereford Street, Tune nearly missed the turn. But she made a wobbly recovery before Biktimirova could gain much of an advantage.
By the time the women reached Boylston Street seconds later, Tune was in perfect position for a winning sprint.
"Even before I came to Boston, I was confident I could win the Boston Marathon," said Tune. "From the beginning to the end of the race, my training and the way I ran helped me finish strong.
"Once I saw the finish line, I was certain I would finish first."