On Patriots' Day, American Meb Keflezighi- less than two weeks from his 39th birthday - became the first American man since 1983 to win the Boston Marathon. Record crowds lining Boylston Street roared their approval as the Eritrea-born athlete and 2009 New York City Marathon champion - clearly showing the strain over the final miles - refused to crack in the final kilometers as he out-dueled Wilson Chebet and Frankline Chepkwony for the long-awaited American victory, finishing in 2:08:37 - a personal best time for the 2004 Olympic marathon silver medalist.
Keflezighi's stirring and gutty victory could hardly have been more perfect. Running a courageous and fearless race, the multiple times USA Olympian was the personification of the relentless and indomitable spirit that the running community and the people of Boston have drawn upon over the last year. In the immediate aftermath of last year's horrific Boylston Street bombings, there were many who - without much reflection - feared that the despicable acts of terrorism that day would forever scar the Boston Marathon. Not so. Just days after the Patriots' Day bombings, the convergence of the indomitable spirit of the running community and the relentless resiliency of the Boston residents made one thing perfectly clear: the 2014 race would not be a fearful shadow of its former self. The 118th B.A.A. Marathon would be a showcase of character - displaying the unwavering commitment of the runners and their refusal to be cowed by cowardly acts of terrorism and the reinvigorated and unified spirit of the people of Boston.
The men's elite field - the fastest in Boston history with ten athletes who have run under 2:06:57 - answered the starting pistol under perfect racing conditions: sunny skies, near windless conditions, and 60 degree temperatures. Defending champion Lelisa Desisa - last year's #1 ranked marathoner by Track & Field News - was facing a daunting challenge to repeat. Could Dennis Kimetto, the record-setting 2013 Chicago champion, reclaim the title for Kenya? And what about enigmatic American hopeful Ryan Hall? His fourth place finishing time of 2:04:48 in 2011 would have won every other Boston Marathon. But America's fastest all-time marathoner has not finished a marathon since January 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials. Would today's Boston Marathon be his race of redemption?
Americans Hall and Keflezighi took up the fight early, leading the men's field through the first 5K in a spirited 15:09. Mile 8 witnessed the first major move as Keflezighi and American Josphat Boit quickly opened up a 30 meter gap on a sizeable chase back - an advantage that grew to 32 seconds by 20 kilometers. Were Kimetto, Desisa and company struggling? Or were they plotting a patented African negative split strategy made possible by the solid - but not scintillating - sub 2:09 pace?
Meb and Boit pressed on, building their advantage to nearly a minute over the quicker-PR'd Africans. Taking a page out of the Bill Rodgers' Racing Play Book, Keflezighi dropped Boit when he tossed in a punishing downhill surge at the 25 kilometer mark heading down into lower Newton Falls. The American-trained athlete had made a bold statement - a commitment to push to the finish line still 11 miles away.
Keflezighi evidenced no cracks as he passed the Newton Fire Station. Instead, he poured it on. Deep into Newton Hills, the 2012 Olympic Trials marathon champion threw down a 4:47 mile to stretch out his lead. Still trailing badly, the Africans had not yet mounted a charge. And just past 30 kilometers, the defending champion Desisa walked off the course - done for the day. And suddenly - just like that - the dream of an American man winning Boston for the first time since 1983 became a permissible thought.
But the UCLA graduate knew that it was not yet a time to dream. It was a time to run, and to run hard. And it was time to find out if he could close the show. Inflicting pain upon his competitors - and himself - Meb cranked out another 4:47 in the 24th mile as the partisan crowds offered deafening encouragement. As he approached 40 kilo mark at Fenway Park, Keflezighi - his teeth clenched and his face etched with effort- was taking himself to a very dark place as Wilson Chebet was only 12 seconds back and closing fast. After struggling through the Mass Avenue underpass, Keflezighi drew inspiration from the exhorting crowd and exhibited renewed speed as he turned right on Hereford and left on Boylston for the final kilometer drive to the line. Strong closing finishes by Chebet and Chepkwony kept the outcome in doubt until the final 100 meters. It was only then that Keflezighi - his fists pumping skyward - and the Boylston spectators would know that the 31 year old American victory dry spell would at long last be over.
After a post-finish line celebratory embrace from Greg Meyer - the last American man to win on Patriots' Day - Keflezighi was poised and articulate in the afterglow of his victory. "I wanted to win it for the people," offered the new champion. "The crowd helped me a lot. And I am fortunate to have a wonderful support team with Team Meb," he explained. Meb knew the significance of his performance. "I am blessed to be an American. God bless America and God bless Boston. It is a special day on Patriots' Day," offered Keflezighi with genuine humility.
In winning the 2014 B.A.A. Marathon, Keflezighi became one of the oldest Boston winners ever. Only 1920 champion Peter Trivoulidas [a winner at 39], 1931 winner James "Smiling Jimmy" Henigan [10 days older than Meb when he won], and 7-time victor and Boston legend Clarence DeMar [who was 39 when he won in 1928 and 41 during his 1930 triumph] have been older champions. When asked what it means capture the coveted Boston title in his late thirties, the new champion simply smiled and exclaimed, "It all happens in God's time."
Further back on the course, a pair other U.S. marathoners were having PR days which resulted in 2 additional Americans in the top ten. Patience during the first half allowed both Nick Arciniaga [2:11.47] to grab 7th place followed by Jeff Eggleston [2:11:57] in 8th. Woes continue for America's fastest marathoner as Ryan Hall unraveled in the hills and struggled in to finish 20th in 2:17:50.
Last year's glorious Patriots' Day race day which began with enthusiasm and ended in horror ensured that the 117th running of the B.A.A. Marathon would never be forgotten. But after a year of healing and building expectations - for 2014 Boston Marathon champion Meb Keflezighi and the other 36,000 committed athletes - today's cleansing race of redemption and the return of an American marathoner to the top step of the men's podium guarantees that the 118th Boston Marathon will also long be remembered. Dave Hunter