The finish line for the New York City Marathon, so orderly and secure throughout the morning and afternoon, resembled a carcass by Sunday evening as workers began to strip away its decorative features. A red truck slowly backed over the line, and employees hopped out to disassemble signs.
At 7:30 p.m., Sala Cyril, a 38-year-old woman from New York, trotted across the line, 8 hours 28 minutes after she had started the marathon. Greeted by family, friends and volunteers, Cyril placed 49,466th. She was celebrated as the final finisher with a recorded time.
“I did it!” she said.
Seconds later, race officials erected a small orange barrier along the finish line and placed traffic cones in front of it. The marathon was essentially over, and a new, less ceremonious stage had inadvertently taken shape — one for the first runners to arrive at the finish after the official time cutoff.
They had missed the 7:30 p.m. deadline by several strides. They were Shari Diaz, 32, of Hempstead, N.Y.; Wicki Ball, 55, of London; and Kendra Sandman, 54, of Baltimore.
Their results would not count. They did not seem to care.
“We should be given an award for that,” said Diaz, a first-time marathoner.
Diaz was coming off the Queensboro Bridge, at around Mile 15, when she joined up with Ball and Sandman. They were all traveling at the same pace, with the same attendant suffering. They did not know one another. They bonded immediately.
“The police were passing us, saying the race was over,” Diaz said. “We were out there on the sidewalk with pedestrians. It was a struggle.”
Nearly nine hours after they took their first steps across the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the runners — all of them official entrants — approached the finish in Central Park. It was dark. Police officers and race volunteers outnumbered spectators. The traffic cones had been placed in front of the finish line, for reasons that were unclear to Diaz at the time. Trailed by Ball and Sandman, Diaz hopscotched past the cones and delighted in her achievement.
“My socks are probably full of blood,” she said.
Ball peered at her own sneakers.
“I don’t think I have any toenails left,” she said.
Only then was it brought to their attention that they had finished first — first, that is, in the Almost category.
Ball, who had traveled from her home in England to cross the marathon off her bucket list, said she planned to enjoy a nice dinner.
“I don’t know how many calories I’ve burned,” she said, “but I’m going to do my damnedest to put them back in.”
The three women were reliving their experiences when they turned to see another familiar face cross the line. Cristina Canonico, an Italian, had joined the group for several miles.
“Thank you very much!” she said as she kissed Sandman on the cheeks, and then she exhaled. “I tired.”
A couple of hours before their arrival, music pumped through oversize speakers as a pair of M.C.s led cheers for finishers who had been out on the course all day. The crowds were beginning to thin. Most of the weary-looking marathoners jogged. Some walked. Many lumbered. Others limped.
“It’s time to get your finish on!” one of the volunteers shouted.
An hour later, the grand stage was in pieces, though dozens of volunteers remained.
“We stay to greet every last runner,” said Peter Ciaccia, the race director for New York Road Runners, the group that organizes the marathon. “We want to give everyone the same experience of finishing the marathon.”
The late arrivals were led by Diaz and Ball, who finished first and second — or was it 49,467th and 49,468th? Ball, who manages examinations for a high school, has a daughter who lives in New York, but Ball advised her to stay home on race day. Ball seemed to anticipate that it would be a grueling experience.
“I didn’t want her to have to pick me up in a wheelbarrow,” she said.
Diaz had been training with a group called Black Girls Run. After watching several of her running buddies complete marathons, she felt inspired to give it a shot, too. On Sunday, several members of the group awaited Diaz’s arrival at Mile 16. Diaz said she was so overcome with emotion that she teared up.
“She needed a minute alone,” said Sandman, a college professor.
Even as late afternoon turned into early evening, the streets were lined with spectators. Children offered high-fives.
“When you’re coming up in the back,” Diaz said, “and there’s no other runners around but there are still some crowds out, they give you your own little parade.”
Because most of the aid stations had been shuttered by the time Diaz and her compatriots arrived, often jogging or walking by that point, spectators offered food and beverages: bananas and doughnuts, lollipops and water. One woman approached Ball and offered to run to the deli for her.
“She said, ‘I’ll get you a bagel with anything you want on it,’” Ball recalled. “So I kept walking, and the next thing I knew, she caught up with me and handed me a bagel.”
Instead of being miserable, Sandman said, they decided to have fun. They talked about their families. They enjoyed the scenery. Sandman’s GPS watch died. They took at least one wrong turn, traversing an extra block. Had they stayed on course, they probably would have made the official cutoff.
“It was dark!” Sandman said.
At one point, Diaz’s husband, Christian, and her young daughter, Bella, popped up on the side of the road with hot pizza.
“She wanted mommy to finish,” Sandman said.
They all dreamed of their guilt-free postrace meals. Diaz told her new friends that marathoners burned the caloric equivalent of 24 cupcakes, which led one of them to suggest that race officials put cupcakes at every mile marker. Maybe next year.
Diaz said the entire experience had made her love the city even more.
“A lot of heart out there,” she said. “It was perfect. It was what we needed the race to be. We had an experience of the marathon that most of the other competitors did not have.”
She was asked if she would enter another marathon. She turned to Sandman and Ball.
“Only if these guys are doing it, too,” she said.