Gino Van Geyte limps over to a plush chair in the corner of the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel lobby. He just won the men's masters division (ages 40-49) in his first visit to Boston. But he's in a world of hurt. Grimacing and exhaling slowly, he grabs the arms of the chair and lowers his frame, wincing as he sinks into the seat.
It was the hills that did it. Van Geyte, 41, has raced in more than 50 marathons all over the world - Munich, Dublin, Venice, Ottawa - but the feeling in his legs, that deep ache, tells him Boston was one of the toughest challenges of his career.
"It's never flat. The whole way is downhill, little downhill, little upstairs, little downhill, long upstairs, long downhill," he says, mimicking the rolling of the road by waving his hand.
But Van Geyte tackled the topography with gusto, winning the men's masters title by outlasting leg cramps and a pack of runners that stumbled through the long steep sections of Newton. He finished in 2 hours, 23 minutes, and 36 seconds, good for 19th overall.
A native of the Flemish side of Brussels, Van Geyte was 20 seconds ahead of Coquitlam, British Columbia, resident Bruce Deacon, who was 20th overall. Last year's 40-49 winner, Russian Oleg Strizhakov, grabbed third with a 2:24:16 mark, 21st overall.
Van Geyte pats his legs, saying he is disappointed with his time.
"But I'm very happy that I won," he quickly adds, saying that had he forced himself to drink more water on the course, he might have avoided the cramping.
"I wanted to run a 2:17. That was the goal," he says. "There were times when I had a good time, but the last part, I just lost it. The hills, they come very late in the course. It's better if you get them in the beginning."
He likens Boston to the Utrecht Marathon in Belgium, a mountainous course. But he says nothing compares to Boston's atmosphere.
"The people here, they cheer," he says. "When you get to [Wellesley], you see the girls. I love the people. I hope I can come back again. It's fabulous. The staff here, the people, there's one word: perfect."
Van Geyte currently does five marathons a year in addition to his duties with the Belgian Army. As a First Corporal Chief, he trains soldiers for fitness and endurance. And at 41, he's aware that he can't run forever.
"If I run below 2:30 in the marathon, it's not bad. But if it becomes 2:35, I'll go to cycling," he says, tapping his knees.
Van Geyte might have worn the effects of the marathon all over his face, but the women's masters champ, Firaya Sultanova-Zhdanova, felt just fine.
The Russian said through an interpreter that she was "very nervous" before the race. The record-holder in the division, she didn't compete in Boston last year because of injury, and she felt pressure to do well yesterday.
After the race, she relaxed. Sultanova-Zhdanova, who turned 47 Sunday, won the women's masters division in 2:47:17, beating New Zealand's Gabrielle O'Rourke by almost six minutes. She was the oldest women's masters winner since 50-year-old Miyo Ishigami in 1985.
"I'm very honored about my win today," she said through interpreter Tatyana Pozdnyakova. "At my age, it's very hard to run Boston, because it's a very hard course."
In 2002, she set the Boston women's masters record (2:27:58), breaking Priscilla Welch's 14-year-old mark. But she almost didn't compete yesterday.
Last year, a painful case of Achilles' tendinitis nearly ended her career.
"She was running on her tiptoes," says her coach, Sue Bozgoz. "Last year, she could barely run."
Special shoe inserts corrected Sultanova-Zhdanova's stride, and she won the Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta, then set the record at the Army Ten-Miler.
Now, with another Boston title in hand, Sultanova-Zhdanova feels great. And she wants to run as long as she's able.