PORTLAND – As Dan Vassallo approached the Veranda Street underpass on his way to a rain-soaked victory in Sunday morning’s 21st annual Maine Marathon, the pace tractor holding the race clock ahead of him coughed, sputtered and rolled to a stop.

Forget the field, not even the Gator could keep up with Vassallo, a 27-year-old Colby graduate who set the course record here in his first marathon attempt five years ago.

Now living in Peabody, Mass., Vassallo returned to Maine after hearing that his friend Rob Gomez, a former Bates rival now living in Saco, was going after Vassallo’s record of 2 hours, 26 minutes, 54 seconds.

“I knew that somebody was going to take down my record (Sunday),” said Vassallo, also wary of Moninda Marube, a Kenyan native living in Auburn who won the Patriots Day 5-miler in April and beat Vassallo in a 10-mile race in July. “It just depended on how much it was going to go by and who was going to get it.”

As it turned out, Gomez indeed broke the 2:25 mark that triggered a $1,000 bonus for the male winner … but that bonus went to Vassallo, who lopped more than five minutes off his course record and cruised to victory in 2:21:12, more than three minutes ahead of Gomez (2:24:48) and nine ahead of Marube (2:30:38).

“If I had shut my mouth,” Gomez said with a rueful grin after congratulating Vassallo on his victory, “I’d have had (the bonus).”

The first woman to finish was Eliza Tibbits, 23, an Old Town native who now lives in Falmouth while studying for a graduate degree in occupational therapy at the University of Southern Maine.

Tibbits didn’t take the lead until reaching Baxter Boulevard and the penultimate mile of the 26.2-mile up-and-back course that stretches from Portland’s Back Cove through Falmouth and Cumberland to Yarmouth’s Princes Point.

With a time of 3:03:50, Tibbits wound up nearly a minute ahead of 25-year-old Katy Agule of Brighton, Mass.

Until reaching Payson Park and seeing Agule within reach, Tibbits was more concerned with an unusual case of foaming shorts. Seems she either used too much laundry detergent or required a second rinse, because the first one wasn’t very effective with her running shorts.

“Well, this kind of ruins the Kodak moment,” she said, wearing a laurel wreath and clutching a flower bouquet while looking down at legs spattered with white foam, which appeared only after she had run 20 miles in a persistent drizzle.

“I was here last year and (conditions were) much worse,” she said. “I think this was perfect.”

For the second year in a row, the wet conditions forced organizers to cancel awards ceremonies and instead mail prizes and certificates. First place was worth $500 to both Tibbits and Vassallo, who also earned the $1,000 course-record bonus. Gomez and Agule each received $250 for finishing second.

This year’s race featured 977 runners in the marathon, 1,969 in the half-marathon and 101 relay teams.

Although once again it was gray and wet and chilly, there was little to no wind Sunday, unless you count the draft created by Vassallo, who surged away from Gomez and Marube as the half-marathoners reached their turnaround point on Route 88 in Falmouth.

“That’s when I knew I had to go,” said Vassallo, who averaged a 5:23 mile pace. “I don’t have the confidence that I could out-kick anybody.”

Marube fell off the pace in mile 11 and Gomez lost sight of Vassallo a few miles later.

“At the half, anything could have happened,” said Gomez, 29. “After that, it was evident that it was his day. And it’s not like I had a bad race. I had a good race. It’s just that this guy is above and beyond.”

Since Vassallo won the 2007 Maine Marathon, he has experienced highs (winning the 2010 Philadelphia Marathon) and lows (sports hernia surgery, injuries to both Achilles tendons that forced him to miss the Olympic Trials). Last year he became engaged to his girlfriend of five years, Katrina Gravel; she ran alongside him for a 100-yard stretch of Route 88 Sunday morning.

They plan a June wedding.

Marathoners still on their way to Yarmouth called out, “Way to go, No. 1″ in reference to his bib number, or simply let out whoops and hollers of encouragement as Vassallo sped past them. Overtaken half-marathoners — and there were many — usually reacted with a single word.

“Wow.”

As he approached the tape, Vassallo thrust his arms in the air like a triumphant boxer. In the finishing chute, he sought out the volunteer bicyclist who accompanied him and helped him weave through the half-marathon traffic on Baxter Boulevard.

“Sir, what’s your name?” he asked of the mustachioed Mike Chadbourne, who had labored to keep pace with Vassallo on several of the steep inclines. “Thank you so much. You’re the best.”

On Sunday, the same could be said of Vassallo. His finishing mile, after leaving the out-of-gas Gator behind, was 5:08.

“He destroyed the Gator, he went so fast,” said Gomez, only half-kidding. “He’s one of the best marathoners in New England right now, no doubt.” 

Staff Writer Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at:

[email protected]