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Updated: November 16, 2011 11:46AM

Though an elite Kenyan athlete breezed to victory in record time, climbing temperatures slowed thousands of runners in Sunday’s Bank of America Chicago Marathon.

But in the end, 35,628 runners completed the race in front of 1.7 million spectators who lined the 26.2-mile course, according to officials.

One runner, a 35-year-old firefighter from North Carolina, collapsed about 500 yards short of the finish line and died nearly two hours later. What caused William Caviness’ death was not known, but it was the first fatality in the Chicago Marathon since 2007, when heat forced the shutdown of the race before it ended.

But temperatures Sunday came nowhere near the 87 degrees that hit the 2007 marathon along with high humidity. It was 64 degrees at 7:30 a.m. when the race kicked off to the booming rhythms of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run.” By 9 a.m., it was 66 degrees. At 10:30 a.m., when most of the elite runners had already finished and when Caviness collapsed, it was 70. But by noon, when the majority of all the runners had crossed the finish line, the mercury jumped another seven degrees to 77.

That was enough to slow down Kelly Lynch, 32, who just broke the four-hour mark but fell short of the Boston Marathon qualification time she’d hoped for.

“It was just too hot,” she said. Lynch also had to find fresh motivation after she dropped her iPod in the sixth mile.

“I couldn’t go back for it or I’d have been trampled,” she said. “I was inside my own head the rest of the way — it wasn’t a nice place to be.”

Some stiff-legged runners cooled down after the race by balancing ice packs on their heads and sipping on well-deserved free beers. Others had to be helped from the finishing area in wheelchairs or be supported by volunteers. Fifty-four people were transported to hospitals Sunday, compared to 100 last year and 85 in 2009, officials said.

Of the 45,000 runners who registered, 35,628 finished — the second most in the history of the marathon, behind last year’s 36,088 finishers.

Patti Hunt, 41, of Brentwood, Tenn., said race officials and workers did a great job of keeping the runners supplied with fluids and sponges. The runners, many of whom were walking to the finish line after five hours, used the sponges to hydrate, while others poured the water over their heads and backs.

“The course support was better than any I’ve seen,” said Hunt, who had run half-marathons in Chicago and a full marathon in Vancouver before finishing the Chicago Marathon.

“It’s difficult to gauge where to put fluids along the course, but I could tell this one was well stocked until the end,” said Hunt, a project manager at an IT company. Hunt finished the course in 4:32.

Jenny Riemersma, 23, of Oak Lawn, said the heat caused her to finish 15 minutes slower than she would have liked.

“Heat was definitely a factor,” said the graduate school student at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. “Two years ago, the weather was beautiful by comparison.”

Raising money was a major motivation for thousands.

Sister Stephanie Baliga, the former University of Illinois track star, said her run helped raise $19,000 for the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels. Dressed in a modest beneath-the-knee black skirt specially designed for nuns and orthodox Jewish women, Baliga finished with a big smile in an unofficial time of 3 hours 43 minutes and 58 seconds, inside her target of 3:45.

“My hamstrings feel a little tight but other than that it went really well,” she said. “People were cheering us on the whole way.”

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