Running in a tight pack as he cruised through downtown streets, the zoo and the Under Armour headquarters, Stephen Muange didn't want to push the pace at Saturday's Baltimore Marathon.
It wasn't because he couldn't, or even that he didn't want to. The 30-year-old just didn't know how marathons ran.
Trying out the 26.2-mile race format for the first time, Muange pulled away from two other elite runners in the final mile to take first place in one of the most thrilling finishes in the event's 11-year history. The Kenyan won the $25,000 purse with a time of 2 hours, 15 minutes and 16 seconds.
"In Kenya, everyone runs marathons, so I knew I had to run one at one point," Muange said. "I'm just happy it worked out, and I'm looking forward to running one again."
Olena Shurkhno, a 26-year-old from Ukraine, won the women's title for the second straight year, finishing in an event-record 2:29:11.
Organizers estimated that 25,000 runners participated in the Baltimore Running Festival, the largest group ever.
In the final six miles, as many of his fellow elite runners started to drop back, Muange finally started to pick up the pace. He used the energy he stored up from earlier to distance himself from the field, along with two others, Ambese Tolosa and Tesfaye Assefaudube.
The two Ethiopians tried to block of Muange's path in the final mile, but he surged past them with 300 meters left. Tolosa finished in second, just four seconds behind, while Assefaudube crossed the line two seconds later.
"I just pushed it into another gear," said Muange, who has won 21-kilometer races in California, Kansas City and Minnesota over the past two years and felt it was time to try a marathon for the first time. "I knew no one could catch me at that point."
The women's race didn't feature as much suspense. By the second half, Shurkhno knew she had it won and focused on setting the record.
"I knew the competition was stronger this year, so I tried to put myself at the front of the pack and control the pace," she said through a translator. "I feel like after the half-marathon point I started pushing away from everyone else. I just felt confident and comfortable."
Neither Shurkhno nor Muange garnered much attention at the beginning of the race, which was highlighted by local elementary school teacher Dave Berdan.
The teacher of 4th-, 5th- and 6th-grade science at Garrison Forest School in Owings Mills quickly captured the lead within the first 500 yards and maintained roughly a 30-second lead for most of the first half of the race.
"They were just going slow, and I thought if I pushed the pace they would follow, but they didn't," Berdan said of the elite runners pack at the beginning. "I just went the pace I wanted to. I knew people would be saying, 'What the heck is he doing?'"
After relinquishing the lead during the 11th mile, Berdan still finished as the first American and Maryland runner at 10th overall.
For a while, the the varsity cross country coach at Garrison Forest gave many in attendance the hope that an American could win for the first time in event history.
"I just kept hearing 'USA, USA, USA' from people watching," Berdan said. "So many people I didn't know were saying 'Go Dave!' or 'Go teacher!' It was awesome."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun