NEW YORK — Geoffrey Mutai ran by himself through Central Park, the same scene as the last New York City Marathon.
The race’s return to the five boroughs looked no different from the past in many ways, yet much had changed. The streets were still crammed with runners and the sidewalks with fans, undaunted by the tight security.
Mutai successfully defended his title Sunday, while fellow Kenyan Priscah Jeptoo came from behind to win the women’s race.
Mutai broke the course record in New York two years ago, then the 2012 race never happened because of the destruction from Superstorm Sandy. The April bombings at the Boston Marathon bared the vulnerability of an event that packs city streets with people.
So barricades blocked off much of the park, and fans waited in bag-check lines to get in.
Still, there were plenty of spectators to urge on Jeptoo to chase down Buzunesh Deba, a Bronx resident who finished runner-up for the second consecutive time in her hometown race.
Jelena Prokopcuka of Latvia, who won the NYC Marathon in 2005 and ‘06, placed third at age 37, returning to the podium after the birth of her son.
Nobody was catching Mutai, who pulled away around Mile 22 and beat Ethiopia’s Tsegaye Kebede by 52 seconds. On a windy morning, Mutai’s time of 2 hours, 8 minutes, 24 seconds was well off his course record of 2:05:06 set in nearly perfect conditions two years ago. He’s the first man to repeat in New York since Kenya’s John Kagwe in 1997-98.
“To defend your title is not easy,” Mutai said. “As you see the course today, the weather today, it was not easy. Even for me, I try all I can, but I was not believing that I can finish like that.”
Jeptoo trailed Deba by nearly 3Â½ minutes at the halfway point. She made her move as the race entered Manhattan after a race official on a bike told her how big the gap was.
“So I started to push the pace,” she said. “I was having confidence that I will make it.”
Deba was slowed by stomach cramps, and Jeptoo passed the Ethiopian with just more than 2 miles left. The 2012 Olympic silver medalist and 2013 London Marathon champ, Jeptoo won in 2:25:07 to clinch the $500,000 World Marathon Majors bonus.
Last year’s late cancellation of the event in New York incensed many residents and runners, but there was little sign of those sour feelings Sunday.
The women’s race played out almost identically to the last NYC Marathon two years ago. But this time, Deba was the pursued, not the pursuer.
In 2011, Mary Keitany took a big early lead, and Deba and countrywomen Firehiwot Dado chased her down. Dado, who won that day, was 14th Sunday as the defending champ.
This time, Deba and training partner Tigist Tufa separated themselves right from the start. Deba wound up finishing 48 seconds behind Jeptoo, while Tufa fell back to eighth.
“That’s my plan,” Deba said. “I need to run my best time. My training is very good. I prepared very good.”
Kebede, the London Marathon champ, clinched the $500,000 bonus for the World Marathon Majors men’s title. South Africa’s Lusapho April was third.
Mutai proved again that when he’s healthy, he’s the best in the world. He ran the fastest marathon in history, 2:03:02 in Boston in 2011, which didn’t count as a world record because the course is too straight and downhill.
Tatyana McFadden of Maryland won the women’s wheelchair race after taking the titles in Boston, London and Chicago in 2013. No other athlete has won those four races in the same year. Marcel Hug of Switzerland was the men’s wheelchair winner.
Runners, professional and amateur, said they felt safe on the course. Security was tight from the moment they arrived at the start. They were corralled into long bag-check lines, and officers and volunteers repeatedly reminded them to keep cellphones out.
Elizabeth Hutchinson of Seattle recalled the joy at the starting line in Boston this year. People were handing out sunscreen, Band-Aids and energy gels with a smile.
On Staten Island, she said, “the machine guns are very visible.”
“The atmosphere is so different,” she said, “It kind of makes me sad.”
Near the finish, Ashley O’Brien of Brooklyn was ready with a bullhorn to cheer members of her running group, the Hudson Dusters. She got teary-eyed remembering the events of the past year.
“It’s a nice time to all come back together,” she said. “You still remember why it was canceled last year and you remember Boston. So it’s a little bittersweet.”