"Since I was in college, I used to like to kick," said Leonard Korir, recalling the origins of the potent weapon he unleashed oh-so-late to sweep past Stephen Sambu in the shadow of the finish line at the United Airlines NYC Half on Sunday morning, taking victory in 1:01:06, barely a hair's breadth ahead of his Kenyan counterpart.
Korir, of course, knows this city well, as his career was fostered just a matter of miles away from the course at Iona College in New Rochelle. The experience he had of this race, of these streets - Korir finished fourth here in 2013 - was in evidence throughout Sunday's half marathon and in the end, it may have been the deciding factor between him and Sambu, who described losing out so close to the line in suitably stunned terms; "I didn't believe he just passed me at the line," he said. "I didn't know it was coming. It was bad. It was painful."
Indeed, it was made all the more painful by the fact that Sambu had been the one who led so much of the race. The field set off at a relatively leisurely pace - the lead group of a dozen athletes passed the 10K mark in 29:13. Not exactly slow, but still well below the capabilities of most of the leading men. At that point, the group was led by Sambu, who finished third in the race last year.
From the start, he was the one who was the keenest to get on with things, the one pushing the pace and trying to whittle the field down to a manageable size, but his task was one he was often left to do in isolation. "I like running at the front all the time," said Sambu afterwards. "I don't like going slow."
Behind Sambu, Mexico's Juan Luis Barrios, South Africa's Lusapho April and home heroes Meb Keflezighi and Dathan Ritzenhein were content to shelter in the group and allow someone else do the lion's share of the pace-making duties.
One of those sheltering coyly in the pack was Korir, who rarely, if ever, showed his face at the front before he absolutely had to. At seven miles, as Sambu, Barrios and April charged down seventh avenue, Korir became detached from the leading trio, and it was a mile later before he managed to regain contact.
From there, the two-time NCAA champion Korir stalked the leaders and with a mile to go, Sambu's efforts had burnt off all but Korir, who doggedly clung to his training partner's heels. "I was telling myself: 'just hang in there,'" he said. "I was telling myself: 'I'll be number two', but with 1K to go, I saw Stephen was not going and something in my head said: 'you know what, win this thing.'"
That inner voice quickly echoed down to Korir's legs and, from looking a beaten man just 400m from home, he soon drew up alongside Sambu and sneaked by to steal the race just meters before they crossed the line. Third-placed Juan Luis Barrios summed up the feeling of many who watched Sambu's apparent title slipping from his grasp on the line: "In my opinion, one guy made the race, another guy won the race," he said.
It was hard to argue with that assessment, though Barrios's words of consolation will do little to dampen the disappointment Sambu will have felt at losing the title - and the extra $10,000 on offer for first place - so late after working so hard to earn it.
Farther back, Andrew Bumbalough was best of the home contingent, finishing fifth in 1:02:04, just ahead of Dathan Ritzenhein (sixth in 1:02:07) and Meb Keflezighi (eighth in 1:02:17). "It was 13 miles of fun today," said Ritzenhein, who was using the race as his final prep run before a marathon comeback in Boston next month. "Sometimes when you're training for a marathon, you don't feel as good in the half. I felt like it was a grind out there, but it was a good, solid race. I was happy with it."
Bumbalough was pleased with his first serious foray into road running. "It was a great experience," he said. "It was really fun and I was pretty happy with the way I was able to finish up."
Last year's Boston Marathon champion, Keflezighi, was also content with his showing as he prepares for next month's title defense. "It was good," he said. "It was a grind. The pace was fine, and I could have gone for a while at that pace. I came out of it healthy. I know what I need to do now and in about a month, go back out training, and then hopefully give it a good shot in Boston."