A winding road of marathon stories at the Olympics

The marathon is an anthology of stories, each unfolding over the twists and turns of 26.2 miles, each with a different conflict and each with a different ending even though all runners who complete the course cross the same finish line.

For the 105 men who started the Olympic marathon Sunday on the last day of the Games, the race was hot and humid. The 75-degree weather was very un-London-like, but the route was pure London, passing landmarks such as the Tower of London, St. Paul’s cathedral and Buckingham Palace.

For Stephen Kiprotich of Uganda, the marathon was a surreal story. As he rounded the Queen Victoria memorial and ran down the homestretch of The Mall, he could not believe he was leading the Olympic marathon.

He kept looking over his shoulder at the favorites, Kenyans with impressive marathon résumés. The lead he seized with four miles to go only lengthened. Even with a 26-second gap, he could not believe what was happening.

“But when I crossed the line I could believe it,” Kiprotich said.

Kiprotich ran a brilliant tactical race, stalking the leaders and challenging them with surges until his last one got no response. He won in 2 hours 8 minutes and 1 second to capture Uganda’s second gold medal in Olympic history, and the first since John Akii-Bua won the 400-meter hurdles in 1972.

The top 33 marathon times of 2012 have been run by Kenyans or Ethiopians. Kiprotich grew up on a farm in Uganda, but trains in Kapsabet, Kenya, with Emmanuel Mutai. No one considered him a contender in London.

“He came to us four years ago, and we know that training in Uganda is very difficult so we directed him to coach Patrick Sang’s group in Kapsabet,” said Jos Hermens, the Dutchman who manages dozens of African runners. “He’s in a good group, and he’s beating those guys. But I did not expect him to be Olympic champion. To be honest, I was betting on [silver medalist] Abel Kirui.”

For Kiprotich, Olympic gold means more invitations to prestigious races, more money, a shot at making the most of his legs before he runs them into the ground.

Unless you are Usain Bolt, marathoning is the most lucrative form of running today. It is also brutally competitive, with young runners coming up constantly. In east Africa, the marathon and its heroes beckon youngsters the way the NBA and NFL tempt American kids.

“I was not known. Now I am known,” Kiprotich said, smiling with pride, not arrogance. “Determination matters. I’m happy.”

For Ryan Hall, who holds so much promise to be America’s greatest marathoner, the Olympic race was a sad story. Another disappointing result in a major event.

Hall dropped out after 9 miles holding his right hamstring.

“It got progressively tighter as the race went on,” Hall said. “I do not want to turn it into a serious injury. Not finishing a race is not an option unless you are running the risk of damaging your future.”

Frustrated and fatigued last fall, Hall left his longtime coach to strike out on his own and discover a new way of training.

He and his wife, who had always been religious, joined a church in northern California that encourages its adherents to develop a closer relationship with God. Hall says God is his coach.

He had hopes that he was on the right road despite skepticism from the marathoning world and whispers that his approach was too out there.

On the big stage of the Olympics, Hall had a chance for affirmation.

Instead, it was the first DNF (did not finish) of his career.

Marathoners would rather crawl across the line than quit.

What does America’s greatest marathoner-in-waiting do now?

He interprets Sunday’s agony as a test of his faith.

For Kenya’s Abel Kirui and teammate Wilson Kipsang, who took silver and bronze, the Olympic marathon was satisfying but frustrating.

Kenya has not had a great Olympics, winning only two golds in middle- or long-distance events — David Rudisha’s world record in the 800 and a Kenyan victory in the 3,000 steeplechase.

Kenyans and their rivals from Ethiopia were upstaged in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters by Great Britain’s Mo Farah and Sunday by a Ugandan who trains in their country.

“The results on the track were not so good after doing well in Daegu,” Hermens said of the Kenyans’ performance at the 2011 world championships.

For Meb Keflezighi, the American who won a silver medal at the 2004 Athens Games and the 2009 New York Marathon, the Olympic marathon was validation. At age 37, he’s still in the hunt. He moved up from 17th at the halfway mark to fourth place in 2:11:06.

He has never gotten the respect he deserves but he never complains. He was the one who made a breakthrough in Athens after years of marathoning irrelevance for the United States His 2:09:15 victory in 2009 made him the first American to win New York since Alberto Salazar in 1982.

“With less than perfect preparation he again shows he’s one of the smartest racers we’ve ever seen,” said New York Road Runners president and CEO Mary Wittenberg.

“Halfway I thought about stopping,” said Keflezighi, born in Eritrea and raised in California. “But I persevered. The course was challenging with a lot of turns. A phenomenal crowd. I told my wife I would finish in the top four. I wanted bronze, but I can’t complain.

“I’m glad I’m done.”

For Guor Marial, the Olympic marathon was a fleeting embrace of home.

He is a man without a country, a refugee displaced by the civil war in Sudan. He wanted to represent South Sudan but he has no passport from the splinter state that lacks Olympic status.

Marial, who is temporarily training in Flagstaff, Ariz., finished 47th in 2:19:32. He was spurred on by residents of the South Sudanese community in Camden. They flew flags and shouted his name, and it made him feel like he was representing his people and their struggle. He was one of three athletes at the London Games as an Independent Olympic Athlete.

He wore the green and black IOA uniform, but hoped he brought attention to the fledgling nation.

“I was in pain, but seeing the South Sudanese fans brought a smile to my face, and I think it was just as special for them,” he said. “We are a long way from home. I blew them a kiss.”