BOSTON Robert Cheruiyot is well-versed in the Boston Marathon course, with four victories in five trips from Hopkinton to the Back Bay.
Abderrahime Bouramdane visited for the first time on Monday, learning what thousands before him have come to understand as they reached Heartbreak Hill, 20 miles in.
"Up," he said, "is the problem."
Cheruiyot pulled away from Bouramdane as they entered the Newton Hills, reaching the crest of Heartbreak Hill with a 27-second lead and coasting to the sixth-fastest time in Boston Marathon history.
Dire Tune outkicked Alevtina Biktimirova after a back-and-forth last mile to win by 2 seconds in the closest finish in the history of the women's race. Cheruiyot, of Kenya, and Tune, of Ethiopia, each earned a recently enhanced prize of $150,000 the biggest in major marathon history.
Cheruiyot won in 2 hours, 7 minutes, 46 seconds to become the fourth man to win the race four times. After crossing the finish line, he dropped to his knees to kiss the ground before standing up and counting off his four victories with an upraised arm.
"This was the hardest," Cheruiyot said. "Boston is not a very easy course, it's very difficult. (But) I enjoy running the hills."
Although he repeatedly checked his watch as he ran alone for the last miles, Cheruiyot did not challenge the course record of 2:07:14 he set two years ago.
His problem: No one to race with.
"It's very difficult when you're running alone here in Boston," he said. "You need company."
Tune, who finished in 2:25:25, was the first Ethiopian woman to win since Fatuma Roba won three straight from 1997-99. She ran side-by-side with Biktimirova into Kenmore Square, and appeared to give up an edge when she nearly missed one of the final turns.
Tune quickly composed herself and took the lead before the last turn, but Biktimirova caught her and regained the lead briefly. Tune pulled ahead for the good on Boylston Street in the last few city blocks and beat the Russian to the line.
"I was fighting until the end," Biktimirova said. "And in the end I just didn't have enough speed."
The previous closest women's finish came two years ago, when Rita Jeptoo beat Jelena Prokopcuka by 10 seconds. Jeptoo finished third this year, 69 second behind Tune.
Cheruiyot's third straight victory gave Kenya its 15th men's title in 17 years; Kenyans also finished sixth through ninth. But Cheruiyot's countrymen struggled more than usual overall, with just the one man in the top five the fewest since 1992 and one woman in the top 10.
Cheruiyot couldn't say whether the performance was related to the postelection violence back home, in which some of his country's top runners have been killed and threatened. Cheruiyot missed two months of training because of the unrest before his coach moved their camp to Namibia.
"My training has been going well despite the problems in Kenya," he said. "When something happens, you have to forget and train."
Bouramdane finished 1:18 back and fellow Moroccan Khalid El Boumlili came in third, another 1:31 back. Nicholas Arciniaga, of Rochester Hills, Mich., was 10th to give the Americans a top-10 finish for the fourth straight year.
Cheruiyot pulled away from a pack of four at the base of the Newton Hills, running the 19th mile in 4:37. He passed defending women's champion Lidiya Grigoryeva, with the two No. 1 bibs running side-by-side, just before the 24-mile mark.
Cheruiyot remained on a record pace as he approached Kenmore Square before slowing over the last mile. Although his course record remained intact, he still beat his winning time of 2:14:13 in last year's monsoon-like conditions.
"Myself, I tried to push," he said. "Last year, I wanted the race to be faster."
The race came a day after the U.S. trials featured the top American women running for a berth in the Olympics. Deena Kastor, Magdalena Lewy Boulet and Blake Russell finished in the top three to make the U.S. team that will go to Beijing.
With the three new Olympians serving as grand marshals, more than 25,000 runners left Hopkinton under a cloudy but calm sky and temperatures in the 50s a major improvement over last year's rain and wind that threatened to scuttle the race.
Among those in the event's second-largest field: cyclist Lance Armstrong and astronaut Sunita Williams, who ran a simulated Boston Marathon last year while in orbit on the International Space Station.
Armstrong won the Tour de France seven times on the strength of his work in the mountains. When he started preparing for Boston, his third marathon, some race veterans told him the hills weren't as difficult as their reputation made them out to be.
"They were wrong," said Armstrong, who finished 496th in 2:50:58. "They are harder, and they do come at a difficult time in the race."