BOSTON — American Kara Goucher ripped off the gloves she wore for the first 25 miles and threw them to the pavement.
The sprint was on.
Kenya’s Salina Kosgei outkicked Goucher and defending champion Dire Tune in the last mile of the Boston Marathon on Monday, going back and forth with Tune in the final blocks of Boylston Street to win the closest women’s finish in event history.
Northeast Georgia was represented well as Jennifer Feenstra, a math professor at Gainesville State College, finished 17th overall in the women’s standings with a time of two hours, 46 minutes. She was the top female runner from Georgia and the fourth Georgian overall.
Ethiopia’s Deriba Merga won the men’s race, with Ryan Hall picking up another third place for the Americans — their best showing in more than 20 years.
"I’ve never experienced anything like this, and I’ve been in the Rose Parade. So that’s a pretty big deal," said Hall, who finished 10th in the Olympics and threw out the first pitch at a Red Sox game over the weekend.
"The bar’s continuing to get raised, and I think it’s time for Americans to step up and meet the challenge. It’s just going to keep getting better and better and faster and faster. ... I know I have a lot to learn. But it’s exciting."
Hall took the early lead with a blistering pace and was shoulder-to-shoulder with the leaders until they passed from Wellesley into Newton, with about 10 miles to go. Merga had pulled away by the bottom of Heartbreak Hill, winning in 2 hours, 8 minutes, 42 seconds — 50 seconds ahead of second-place finisher Daniel Rono of Kenya, with Hall another 8 seconds back. Merga led much of the Olympic marathon last summer before he wilted in the Beijing heat and was passed in the last quarter-mile, finishing fourth.
His victory Monday gave Ethiopia its second in five years; Kenya had won in 16 of the past 18 years, and will have to be satisfied with a women’s title — its seventh since the turn of the century.
"Boston is one of the biggest marathons in the world," Merga said. "Because of that, our people are very happy."
The men seemed undaunted by a stiff headwind that helped slowed the women to a methodical pace — 6:28 for the first mile. Though the elite women were given a half-hour head start, Merga began passing the stragglers as he left Wellesley and threatened to catch the leaders. After finishing, he had to wait for his laurel wreath because Kosgei had not had a chance to climb the podium.
"I was a little bit embarrassed," said eighth-place finisher Colleen De Reuck, a 45-year-old four-time Olympian and naturalized U.S. citizen who grabbed the lead at several points out of frustration. "You come to a marathon — and a big marathon like this — you get paid a lot of money to come and run and I think you should race."
Goucher led the three women as they crossed above the MassPike into Kenmore Square with 1 mile to go, but the two Africans began to pull away from her as they dueled. One year after Tune outkicked Alevtina Biktimirova to win by 2 seconds in what was then the closest women’s finish ever, the Ethiopian traded places with Kosgei several times on the last long stretch to the tape.
"I was a sprinter before," Kosgei said. "So I know about the sprinting."
The only closer finish in the 113-year history of the event was the men’s race in 2000, when Elijah Lagat beat Gezahegne Abera with an identical time of 2:09:47.
Tune fell to the pavement after crossing the finish line and lay there for several minutes; a race spokesman said she was hospitalized as a precaution. Men’s defending champion Robert Cheruiyot, who was going for an unprecedented fourth straight title and fifth overall, dropped out of the race between the 35K and 40K markers and was also taken to a hospital.
Goucher burst into tears and was consoled by her husband.
"I just wanted it for everybody that wanted it for me. ... I just wanted to be the one that won for everybody," said the 30-year-old American, whose voice cracked repeatedly in the postrace news conference. "Usually I have a great kick. I thought it was going to be there."
No American has won in Boston since 1985, when Lisa Larsen-Weidenbach led a U.S. sweep of the top three women’s spots and the men came in second and third. But the presence of Goucher and Hall among the leaders brought out fans holding "Go Kara!" signs and chanting for the U.S. runners.
"People were so proud to see an American up front, and there was a lot of ‘U.S.A.!’ cheering," Goucher said. "Two Americans in the top three is fantastic. I think once things settle in a bit, it’ll be a really great day. We’ll be really proud of this."
South African Ernst Van Dyk breezed to his eighth win in the men’s wheelchair race, matching the Boston record set by Jean Driscoll, who won eight women’s wheelchair races. Japan’s Wakako Tsuchida won her third straight women’s wheelchair race.
The top runners were easier to spot this year, wearing their names on their bibs instead of numbers so the hundreds of thousands of fans along the course could cheer them on.
Another runner was easily identifiable by his number: Air traffic controller Patrick Harten wore No. 1549 to honor his role in the safe landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River. He finished in 2:47:19 — 355th overall.
Boston Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck, wearing green and his 2008 NBA championship ring, finished in 4:16:49. Four-time winner "Boston Billy" Rodgers, back in the race for the first time in a decade, came in at 4:06:49.
"It was truly the most fantastic Boston I’ve ever run," Rodgers said. "I wish I’d seen the finish."