By David Monti, @d9monti
(c) 2014 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved, used with permission.
BOSTON (21-Apr) -- With a bold move early in the 118th Boston Marathon that stuck, Olympic silver medalist Meb Keflezighi of San Diego, Calif., broke the 31-year victory drought for American men here, crossing the finish line on Boylston Street to thunderous applause in a personal best 2:08:37. A year after that finish line was turned into a horrific crime scene by terrorist bombers, Keflezighi's victory represented redemption for both American distance running and the city of Boston.
"It was my dream to win Boston," an elated and humbled Keflezighi told reporters after the race. He continued: "This is probably the most meaningful win for an American."
Keflezighi, who only managed a 23rd place finish at last November's TCS New York City Marathon because injuries had caused him to curtail his training, came into today's race in excellent form. Nonetheless, his name was never uttered by journalists and running fans as a contender for victory. Led by defending champion Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia, 15 men had faster personal best times than Keflezighi going into the race, and Keflezighi would turn 39 on May 5th. He was too old and too slow, the thinking went.
"Guess what?," he said in the post-race press conference wearing the winner's gold wreath on his head. "I didn't have the 2:04, but I got the Boston title."
An early gamble was what allowed Keflezighi to become the first American runner in history to win an Olympic medal and the Boston and New York City Marathon titles during his career. After a reasonable early pace --15:09 through the first downhill 5 kilometers-- Keflezighi ran at the front of the lead pack with his USA teammate Ryan Hall, and Ethiopia's Tilahun Regassa and Markos Geneti among others. The group hit 10 km in 30:26, a 2:08:25 finish pace, and Keflezighi felt good.
"The first early pace, I was comfortable out front," Keflezighi explained. "People think I'm come from behind, but I'm also a front runner. I was delighted to be in it and I was comfortable."
In the seventh mile, Keflezighi and the Mammoth Track Club's Josphat Boit, began to accelerate away from the field. They ran the seventh mile in 4:51 and opened up a visible gap. The move came so early that the other contenders didn't think it meant much. Besides, they thought, there were serious hills ahead and Keflezighi would pay.
"I was a bit scared of the hills," said Kenya's Wilson Kibet who was in the main pack at the time.
By the 9th mile --just before 15 km-- the American duo had an eight-second lead. But by the 11th mile, that lead had widened to 25 seconds and the pack still refused to give chase.
"I wasn't sure when they were going to come catch us, or try to catch us," Keflezighi revealed later.
The two Americans hit the half-way mark in 64:21, and the gap was up to 30 seconds. Keflezighi became emboldened, lifted by the constant shouts of "Go Meb!" and "Go USA!" he heard from the largest crowds in the race's storied history.
"We just kept pushing the pace, and come and catch us," Keflezighi recalled thinking.
By the 15th mile, Boit began to slip back, and Keflezighi decided to open the gap. He split the downhill 16th mile in a sizzling 4:39, and soon he was leading the main pack by over a minute, with Boit struggling in no-man's land in between.
The rest of the race turned into a nail-biting experience for Eritrean-born Keflezighi. Thrusting himself up Heart Break Hill in the 21st mile in a swift 5:13, he did everything in his power to put the race out of reach. He knew working the hills on a course he knew so well was his best strategy.
"This course was designed for someone like me," he said, meaning a strong, tactical runner.
On the down-side of Heart Break Hill, Keflezighi clocked a fast 4:48 mile. He was still alone, but Chebet was now coming into the frame behind him. The three-time Amsterdam Marathon champion dressed in a bright orange adidas uniform was running as fast as possible. He reportedly ran the 24th mile in a breathtaking 4:31, to Keflezighi's 4:47, and the gap had come down to six seconds.
"I was trying to close the gap," Chebet lamented. He added: "I was a bit tired."
Making the two final turns before the homestretch on Boylston Street, Keflezighi shot several glances behind him. He still wasn't sure he had the victory secured.
"It was close at the end, but at the same time I kept thinking Boston Strong, Boston Strong, Meb Strong, Meb Strong. Give everything you have."
But Chebet would run out of gas, and started to become more worried about compatriot Frankline Chepkwony who was chasing him. After Keflezighi broke the tape, Chebet managed to retain the runner-up position in 2:08:48, only two seconds ahead of Chepkwony (2:08:50).
"It couldn't happen at a better time to win for the United States," Keflezighi proclaimed.
There was more success for American athletes behind Keflezighi. Nick Arciniaga, the 2013 USA Marathon champion, finished 8th in 2:11:47. Jeffrey Eggleston was 9th, Boit was 11th and Craig Leon and Mike Morgan finished 12th and 13th, respectively. Ryan Hall, the fastest-ever American marathoner at Boston, had a decidedly off-day, finishing 20th in 2:17:50. It was, however, his first marathon finish in over two years.
For Keflezighi, he said that his career was now "110%" fulfilled with today's victory. He was clearly thankful for all of the support he received, especially from the spectators who he said were "phenomenal."
"I'm almost 39, just ran a personal best, and just won the Boston Marathon," Keflezighi marveled. "I mean, it just couldn't happen at a better time, and I'm blessed."