Flanagan, 36, ended a 40-year drought for US women at the race, playing her cards late and moving all in during the closing miles in Central Park to reach the finish a highly emotional, euphoric champion.
In the days before the race, defending champion Mary Keitany had indicated the course record of 2:22:31 may be on her radar, but in cool, blustery conditions, any such plans were jettisoned soon after the start.
The lead pack of women passed 10 kilometres at a relative dawdle in 36:52, with 19 athletes clustered together at the front. Keitany and Flanagan kept covered in the early stages, running deep in the pack, but approaching the halfway mark, the three-time champion from Kenya crept her way to the front.
Slowly, steadily, she cranked the pace up to a respectable tempo and by the time she led the field through halfway in 1:16:18, she had reduced the leading pack to 15.
At 25 kilometres, as the runners traversed the Queensboro Bridge, Keitany remained at the front and a 5:38 mile whittled the lead pack once more to nine. Content to bide her time, she drifted back into the pack soon after, allowing Italian triathlete Sara Dossena to take the pace with 10 miles left to run.
Traditionally, the three-mile run down First Avenue is when the first major move of the race occurs – as runners enter Manhattan and a wall of sound from either side of the road – but the women’s race remained uneventful until 20 miles, at which point sustained pressure from Ethiopia’s Mamitu Daska dropped all but two athletes: Keitany and Flanagan.
In the miles that followed, Keitany and Daska traded blows at the front, neither of them able to inflict the knockout punch on the other – or indeed Flanagan, who was looking increasingly confident in their slipstream.
With three miles to run, Flanagan finally unleashed her effort, clocking a 5:08 mile to put Daska and Keitany into severe discomfort. That pulled her clear of her rivals, and subsequent miles of 5:11 and 5:04 lengthened that advantage.
Her 26th mile over the rolling terrain in Central Park was covered in 5:12, more than 20 seconds faster than any other elite woman, and at that stage Flanagan was able to coast to the finish to revel in her first success at an Abbott World Marathon Major.
There were tears – lots of them – both before and after she reached the finish in 2:26:53, bringing her home more than a minute in front of Keitany (2:27:54) and Daska (2:28:08).
“About nine months ago I was heartbroken about not getting to race in Boston and it hurt quite a bit,” said Flanagan, “but I kept telling myself there’d be delayed gratification and a moment down the road that made up for it.
“I’ve dreamed of a moment like this since I was a little girl. It means a lot to me, to my family, and hopefully inspires the next generation of American women to be patient. It took me seven years to do this so a lot of work went into this moment.”
Kamworor moves late, hangs on
The men’s race followed a similar pattern, also starting at a pedestrian pace as a group of 16 coasted through 10km in 31:55 with defending champion Ghebreslassie at the front. The Eritrean continued to see-saw the pace over the miles that followed, but never applied enough pressure to truly make a mark on his rivals.
That is, until he approached the halfway mark, when he injected a vicious surge, which quickly took him into a lead of several seconds of his rivals. Once again, however, Ghebreslassie soon backed off, but his 4:44 mile managed to reduce the leading pack to seven.
Halfway was reached in 1:06:09, with all the main contenders stalking Ghebreslassie with each stride, but the pace again slipped to the wrong side of five minutes per mile soon after. That allowed many others to close up, and soon it was a pair of unlikely leaders – Koen Naert of Belgium and Michel Butter of the Netherlands – who towed the lead group of 12 through 17 miles.
At 20 miles, there were seven athletes in the lead group, with Kenya’s Geoffrey Kamworor beginning to show some interest in pushing the pace along. He surged through the 23rd mile in 4:44, which reduced his rivals to three: Lemi Berhanu and Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia and Wilson Kipsang of Kenya.
Berhanu was the first to drop, falling off pace with two miles to run, then Kamworor – a two-time champion at both the IAAF World Cross Country Championships and IAAF World Half Marathon Championships – unleashed the killer blow.
He ripped through the 25th mile in a blazing 4:31, and that was something neither Desisa nor Kipsang had an answer for. Entering the final quarter mile, he had a lead of seven seconds but Kipsang, a champion here in 2014, charged after him on the uphill run to the finish, coming home just three seconds behind Kamworor in 2:10:56.
The winner, who hit the line in 2:10:53, was overcome with joy at the finish after claiming his first marathon major after several near-misses.
“What was in my mind was that I was a champion and I had to have enough belief in my sprint,” said Kamworor. “I knew I had made a decisive move but when I looked I saw Kipsang and I had to lift myself.”
Cathal Dennehy for the IAAF
1. Geoffrey Kamworor (KEN) 2:10:53
2. Wilson Kipsang (ETH) 2:10:56
3. Lelisa Desisa (ETH) 2:11:32
4. Lemi Berhanu (ETH) 2:11:52
5. Tadesse Abraham (SUI) 2:12:01
1. Shalane Flanagan (USA) 2:26:53
2. Mary Keitany (KEN) 2:27:54
3. Mamitu Daska (ETH) 2:28:08
4. Edna Kiplagat (KEN) 2:29:36
5. Allie Kieffer (USA) 2:29:39