Waving to the crowd is something most top marathoners reserve for the end of a race when they have a victory firmly in hand.
But Kenyan Mark Yatich was trailing countryman and two-time defending champion Stephen Ndungu with fewer than 150 yards left in the 18th Los Angeles Marathon on Sunday when he first waved to spectators along Flower Street.
The reason for Yatich's enthusiasm became obvious seconds later when he burst past Ndungu on his way to his first marathon victory in a career-best 2 hours 9 minutes 52 seconds.
Ndungu, who was trying to become the third runner to post three consecutive victories in two major-city marathons, finished second in 2:09:54 to become the third man to break 2:10 in the L.A. Marathon.
Benson Mbithi, the 2000 L.A. Marathon champion, recorded a career best of 2:11:12 to finish third for the third consecutive year on a day when temperatures were approaching 70 degrees by the time the men's elite field was finishing. Charles Seronei was fourth in 2:11:23 as Kenya swept the top four places and had seven of the top-10 finishers.
"I didn't have any specific times [as goals] because we were many Kenyans here competing," said Yatich, 30. "Everybody was going for winning, so I didn't know anything about time."
Tatyana Pozdnyakova, a 47-year-old Russian native who is a Ukrainian citizen by marriage, won the women's race in 2:29:40 to become the oldest runner to win a major-city marathon.
Pozdnyakova finished second in L.A. last year, but surged away from leader Lioudmila Kortchaguina of Russia after 22 miles Sunday and finished 38 seconds in front of her.
Yatich and Pozdnyakova, who will turn 48 Tuesday, each won $25,000 and a car valued at $25,300 for their victories.
Yatich received a $10,000 bonus for breaking 2:10, and Pozdnyakova earned $3,000 for breaking 2:30 on the reconfigured course.
The new course, which was billed as the flattest and fastest in the race's history, did not lead to the lowering of the race record of 2:09:25 set by Simon Bor of Kenya in 1999, but the leaders ran at a sub-2:09 pace through 23 miles.
Kenyan Joseph Kariuki, one of two designated pacesetters, led the men's field through the halfway point in 1:04:28. But the real racing started about a mile and half later when Kenyan Augustus Kavutu surged into the lead.
Kavutu, running with a long stride and high knee lift more typical of a 5,000-meter track runner, maintained a six- to seven-second lead through 17 miles. But Ndungu, Mbithi and Yatich caught him shortly thereafter.
"It was my great concern to not let him go maybe for more than five miles," Ndungu said when asked about Kavutu's break from the pack. "Otherwise, he could maybe take that chance and decide to disappear."
Ndungu, 35, and Mbithi, 24, shared the lead through the 22-mile mark, but then Mbithi began to fade.
"Once they [took] off, the pace was too hard for me," Mbithi said.
The 5-foot-7 Ndungu tried desperately to break away from the 5-11 Yatich after that but was unsuccessful.
Ndungu, who has a short, efficient, shuffling stride, briefly opened a 10-meter lead, but the long-striding Yatich caught him shortly after 24 miles.
Yatich ran a stride or two behind Ndungu for the next two miles, before launching a finishing kick for which Ndungu had no answer.
"I could feel there was somebody who was just right behind my heels," Ndungu said. "I could see the shadow, but I couldn't tell who was who. So until he passed me right [before the finish], that's when I discovered it was Mark Yatich."
Yatich, who ran his previous best of 2:10:55 to finish 10th in Berlin last year, said he was confident of winning with three kilometers left in the race.
"At 38 kilometers, I was doing good, and I thought I could win because I am good in the sprint," he said.
Pozdnyakova, who resides in Gainesville, Fla., for much of the year while training with a group of Russian runners, would probably fare well in a marathon that came down to a kick because she was one of the fastest 1,500-meter runners in the world in the early 1980s. But she powered away from competitors in the final four miles Sunday.
Kortchaguina, 31, appeared to have taken control of the race when she broke away from second-place Irina Safarova of Russia after 18 1/2 miles. But Pozdnyakova, who was in third place at that time, caught Kortchaguina at 21 miles and began to pull away a mile later.
"She broke away from group and she run a little bit faster," Pozdnyakova said about Kortchaguina's surge. "I think, 'Maybe not right now.' I know it's too hard ... I begin slowly to pick up my pace and catch Lioudmila. I catch her and I keep my pace and go faster. Not stop and slow pace."
Kortchaguina, who cut nearly three minutes off her previous best, said she was not surprised when Pozdnyakova passed her.
"I know Tatyana is a stronger runner than I," she said. "She has better results than I. I tried to run faster, but I couldn't. She is