The pace, Erick Monyenye thought, was too slow. So just before Mile 19 of Sunday's California International Marathon, Monyenye shifted into another running gear and invited the rest of the dwindling leaders' pack to keep up.
Nobody followed. And the Kenyan opened a wide lead that he carried to the finish line at 9th Street and Capitol Mall, winning the 29th annual race on a chilly Sunday morning in 2 hours, 11 minutes and 50 seconds.
Ethiopia's Serkalem Biset Abrha won the women's race in 2:33:40, breaking away from countrywoman Atalelech Asfaw over the final two miles.
Monyenye, 24, stayed with the lead pack as its population dropped from seven runners at the halfway point to four near the 16th mile. He made his move shortly before the marker for Mile 19, on a gentle incline along Fair Oaks Boulevard.
"The first half we went slow, so slow," Monyenye said. "I saw that I was so strong, I decided to push."
It was a subtle but commanding kick, as Monyenye's lead stretched to 100 yards, then several hundred. He later said he knew as soon as he broke that the rest of the field would not catch him, not even feeling compelled over the final miles to glance back over his shoulder.
"I knew because I pushed," Monyenye said. "I tried to push with them. They don't respond, so I decided to go alone."
He credited his strong finish partly to his recent training regimen at high altitudes in Mexico.
"I did a lot of training a lot of training so I was feeling in my body I was to make it," he said.
Monyenye, in an orange singlet and green shoes, found himself running alone late in the race past pockets of the thousands of spectators who lined the 26.2-mile course from Folsom to Sacramento.
By the time he traversed the H Street Bridge near Mile 22 and began counting down the numbered streets of east Sacramento, he was well ahead of his nearest pursuers. While the chase pack crossed 56th Street, Monyenye was passing 53rd.
That move relieved the finish of any potential drama, as Monyenye completed the race nearly 21/2 minutes ahead of second-place finisher Ryan Bak of Bend, Ore. Bak recorded a time of 2:14:17, followed by Kenya's Joseph Mutinda, who finished in 2:14:53.
Runners crossing the finish line were draped immediately with blankets, as a chill remained from a morning that saw temperatures around 28 degrees at the 7 a.m. start near Folsom Dam.
Monyenye, who set a personal record by 20 seconds, said he went into the marathon aiming to break the CIM course record of 2:10:27 set by Jerry Lawson in 1993, but that the early pace of the pack the leaders crossed the halfway point at 1:06:51 all but dashed that plan.
He settled for tying the fifth-fastest time in the event's history and claiming the $10,000 winner's check, which Biset Abrha claimed on the women's side.
The 24-year-old Biset Abrha, who resides in New York, used a late kick to edge Asfaw by 16 seconds.
"It's nice," Biset Abrha said. "Very happy."
Asfaw said she and Biset Abrha, past acquaintances, planned to run together for much of the race and did so until about Mile 25, when Biset Abrha made a move that Asfaw could not match.
"I tried to go with her," said Asfaw, who makes her home in Albuquerque, N.M. "But she's too fast for me.
"I knew what's going to happen," Asfaw added. "But I wanted to run a good time, so I just run with her."
Asfaw said her time of 2:33:56 was a personal record. "I am happy," she said.
Nuta Olaru, who resides in Antioch, finished third in the women's race with a time of 2:37:13.
Bak, the second-place finisher on the men's side, was not among the leaders in the early stages, but he slowly made up ground and found himself about 30 seconds behind the second- and third-place runners with about five miles remaining.
"The leader at that point really had taken off; he broke off big-time," said Bak, one of 33 CIM runners who qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials. "I kept thinking, just slowly chip away."
As the lead pack splintered in front of him, he said, with two miles to go he closed within a few seconds of the two runners directly ahead.
"We came around a turn, and I said, 'All right, I'm just going to go,' " Bak said. "I put the pedal down for about a minute, looked over my shoulder, and had opened up a block-and-a-half lead."
Ethiopia's Tesfaye Alemayehu, who placed third in last year's event, made up the late lead pack with Monyenye, Mutinda and Kenya's Benson Cheruiyot before Monyenye's move.
"The winner," said Alemayehu, who later dropped out because of leg pain. "Strong athlete."