"Oh, man, I wanted to stop and dance a little bit,'' the Kenyan said as he cooled down from his breakaway victory in a time of 2 hours, 10 minutes, 6 seconds on Sunday.
"I felt they were saying, 'Go, go John; go, go John.' And I said, 'What? What?' The guys knew my name!''
Kagwe, who trains in the Philadelphia area, probably could have stopped and danced to "Johnny B. Goode,'' and still ended up winning the 42-kilometer (26.2-mile) race. The Rock 'n' Roll Marathon featured bands at approximately every mile and at the finish at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot.
He led for the first 32 kilometers (20 miles) opening a lead of about a minute around the halfway point was reeled in by former winner and countryman Philip Tarus, then blew away again to win the fourth annual race.
Kagwe beat another Kenyan, Stephen Ndungu, by 1 minute, 37 seconds. Tarus used all his strength to catch Kagwe and had nothing left, fading to fifth in 2:13:57. Tarus won the first two editions of the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon, setting the course record of 2:08:33 in 1999.
Defending champion Belay Wolasha of Ethiopia was 10th in 2:16:40.
Margaret Okayo of Kenya was even more impressive in the women's race, winning in 2:25:03 to obliterate the course record for the second straight year. Okayo lowered the record she set last year by 2:02.
Kagwe won the New York City Marathon in 1997 and '98. But he hadn't won since his second New York victory, and in the London Marathon in April, he had cramps in his right hamstring and had to walk the last few miles, finishing 32nd.
But he said he was ready for this race, and showed it by opening a lead of almost two city blocks after five miles. He was the only elite runner hanging with the pacesetters, and hit the halfway point in 1:03:34.
That's when Tarus started closing the gap, and he reeled in Kagwe on a series of hills leaving Mission Bay. Tarus caught him just past 20 miles.
"I just said, 'Welcome,'" Kagwe said.
"I knew he was coming because I kept glancing behind,'' he added. "I knew this guy is using a lot of energy because I knew the pace I was going was 4:50, and then I knew he was coming up with a 4:40. It hurt him.''
Sure enough, Kagwe had regained the lead at the 22-mile mark and was never threatened. He finished with a 4:57 pace on an overcast day.
"I knew I was strong,'' Kagwe said. "I didn't try to run away when he was catching up. I keep to my energy within me. So, I was always waiting for the last two miles.''
Okayo broke away from the lead women's pack just past the halfway mark and recorded consecutive mile times of 5:04, 5:12, 5:15 and 5:16.
Fatuma Roba of Ethiopia, the 1996 Olympic gold medalist and a three-time Boston Marathon winner, was second in 2:27:20. Ornelia Ferrara of Italy was third in 2:29:33.
Kagwe and Okayo each won $10,000 plus an SUV and other products from race sponsor Suzuki. Okayo also got a $5,000 bonus for breaking the course record.
Results: Top finishers
1. John Kagwe, Kenya, 2 hours, 10 minutes, 6 seconds
2. Stephen Ndungu, Kenya, 2:11:43
3. Tadesse Hailemariam, Ethiopia, 2:12:54
4. Gernechu Kebede, Ethiopia, 2:13:36
5. Philip Tarus, Kenya, 2:13:57
6. Wilson Musto, Kenya, 2:14:16
7. Patrick Chumba, Uganda, 2:15:18
8. Phillip Tanui, Kenya, 2:15:30
9. Ronald Mogaka, Kenya, 2:16:12
10. Belay Wolasha, Ethiopia, 2:16:40
1. Margaret Okayo, Kenya, 2:25:03
2. Fatuma Roba, Ethiopia, 2:27:20
3. Ornelia Ferrara, Italy, 2:29:33
4. Irina Bogacheva, Kyrgystan, 2:33:07
5. Silvia Skvortsova, Russia, 2:33:35
6. Elfinesh Alemu, Ethiopia, 2:34:24
7. Leila Aman, Ethiopia, 2:35:44.
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