Suddenly out of the pack appeared Kruithof, his thin legs, looking even thinner in their dark-blue tights, set wide apart and moving. In what seemed like no time at all he had fallen in just behind Niesten. Together they reached the halfway checkpoint in three hours, 29 minutes and moved on, stamped but without the cheese sandwiches and hot chocolate that were offered them. At about 120 kilometers Niesten fell and Kruithof barreled ahead. Niesten caught up in short order, but he fell again, at a hairpin turn where uncleared snow required the racers to run like mincing figure skaters for a few yards. Again Niesten caught up. At 11:45 both straightened and, while skating upright, took food from the pouches slung over their shoulders. Then they were back in their crouches. Now Kruithof led, with Niesten so close behind that his nose nearly touched Kruithof's gloved hands, which were clasped at the small of his back. Far behind, the pack had shrunk to invisibility.
At 1:05 p.m., a little over six hours from the start, Kruithof pulled away from his tiring pursuer. He, too, had fallen a couple of times, but the falls seemed to have taken less out of him. Or maybe, as the veterans say, it was a matter of character. At 1:20, by now all alone, Kruithof fell. He was back up quickly, but he slowed his pace to 10 mph. The ice was treacherous at this point, crusted and buckled. He staggered and almost fell again but recovered. From a van, Rein Zwart, a race director and an Elfstedentocht veteran himself, shouted to Kruithof over the roar of the snowmobiles that had joined the leader, "You don't have to look behind you. They are far back. It's better you look at the ice."
By 1:30 the ice had improved some, and Kruithof picked up his speed to 20 mph. His sharp shoulder blades protruded alternately under his blue suit. His face was unchanged, still gray and frosted, his mouth slightly open, but it showed no sign of stress. With five kilometers to go and victory at hand, he tossed his pack and water jug to his friends in a car alongside, a winner sprucing up for the finish. Small family groups that had walked out onto the lake stood beside the track with dogs and cross-country skis. They cheered him on, applauding with mittened hands. He skated lightly over a ridge of broken ice that had risen across the track, forcing the fleet of motorized vehicles to go wide. As he made the last turn for the closing 300 yards to the Newport finish, people ran from a shopping-center parking lot through the snow to the edge of the lake. He crossed the line with his hands over his head and then, as he came to a stop, he was surrounded instantly by a circle, 10 deep, of Dutch reporters and TV cameramen and Vermonters and Quebecois.
At the core of the circle Kruithof was saying, "It was my best marathon ever.... The ice was so bad I was moaning and groaning.... I thought my legs were dropping off.... I will go on skating until I get my pension." Abruptly he bent forward at the waist, disappearing from the view of all but the closest onlookers. His back was shaking. He was crying. He broke from the circle and skated away, and the crowd let him go.
"You see," said a Dutchman, "always, before, there have been doubts. Some people said that the reason he won so often was because all those years not everyone was there, the 'cracks,' the best skaters. But this year everyone was here, and no more doubts are possible."
"Did you know that he cried?" someone asked.
"I am not surprised," said the Dutchman. "So did I."