American Meb Keflezighi gives Boston Marathon story a stirring finish

Meb Keflezighi, who came to the US at age 12, is the first American man to win the Boston Marathon in 31 years. He dedicated the win to the spirit of the city a year after the bombings.

Gretchen Ertl/Reuters
Meb Keflezighi of the US reacts after winning the men's division of the Boston Marathon Monday – the first American to wear the crown in 31 years.

After a year and a week, after tears and tributes many, Monday marked the day that the city of Boston could at last take back "our race." Today, organizers said, "We're taking back the finish line."

This is not what they were talking about.

American Meb Keflezighi ran the fastest marathon of his life Monday, pushed onward by the estimated 1 million spectators who saw him build a massive 40-second lead coming out of the Newton hills and then almost lose it in the shadow of Fenway Park.

But, in the end, he did take back the finish line with 11 seconds to spare, becoming the first American man to win the Boston Marathon in 31 years. The last American man to win it, Greg Meyer, embraced Keflezighi at the finish line.

It was an embrace that kindled deep in the hearts of sports-obsessed Boston, for which the extraordinary has become routine on the diamond, the ice, and the asphalt since two bombs shattered the peace of the marathon last year. The bombs, placed near the finish line, killed three and injured 260. Another man, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer, was killed days later as the suspects fled.

Keflezighi had on his bib the names of those killed, and as he grimaced through the last few miles of one of the most emotional Boston Marathons in history, he had an entire city beneath him.

"I was going to give everything I had for the people," he told a local newscaster at the finish line. "I have the victims on my bib number. I just said, 'Just keep running, give me the energy.' I said, 'God, give me the strength to get there.' It was coming close at the end, but at the same time, I’ve got to finish. 'Give me the spirit. Give me the energy.' "

His victory was hardly the likeliest outcome. At 38, Keflezighi is the oldest Boston Marathon men's champion since 1930. Last year, each of the top three finishers on the men's and women's side was under 30.

"Every race it's pretty much dealing with the younger guys," Keflezighi told Jamaica's Daily Freeman before the race.

With the win, Keflezighi adds to an impressive résumé. In 2009, he became the first American man to win the New York Marathon in 27 years. In 2004, his silver medal at the Athens Olympics was the first Olympic medal for an American man in the marathon in 28 years.

Keflezighi, whose parents emigrated from the East African nation of Eritrea to San Diego when he was 12, is now the wise old head of the marathon circuit. And former Boston champion Mr. Meyer, at least, saw an advantage there.

"He told me two days ago, 'You're the smartest guy there,' " Keflezighi said of Meyer at the finish line, visibly holding back tears. "Then this morning before I took off, he said, 'Go get it done. You can do it. You can do it. There can't be a better person to pass it on.' "

Talking strategy before the race with Outside Online, Keflezighi discussed when to make a break:

"The course can’t tell you. No way. It depends who’s in the mix [of runners] and what their strengths and weaknesses are. That’s where the intelligence of competition comes.... Once you get to those Newton hills or Heartbreak Hill, take advantage of your strength. If they let you go, you gain confidence, spread the gap, and you’re going to be home free. In a marathon, if you have [created] 20 feet or 20 meters [of space] – it’s hard to make up with two miles to go. In a 5K or 10K, you can probably pick it up, but in a marathon, your mind says 'Go,' your body says, 'No, thank you.' "

His words proved Meyer to be prophetic. The Boston Globe recap reads like a confirmation of Keflezighi's strategic wisdom.

"Coming out of Wellesley Hills, Keflezighi was all alone. By the firehouse turn heading into the Newton hills, his lead had grown to 14 seconds. With three miles to go Keflezighi was up by 40 seconds but was grimacing visibly as [Kenya's Wilson] Chebet was closing."

From Kenmore Square through the finish line, however, Keflezighi cudgeled his body into an "if you must" and the rest is, quite literally, history.

Last June, the Boston Bruins came within two victories of winning the Stanley Cup; this spring they are the consensus pick to go those two wins further. Last October, the Boston Red Sox won their third World Series in nine years, clinching the title in Fenway Park for the first time since 1918.

Now, on the most Boston of Boston sporting days, on a state holiday that commemorates the first shots of the Revolutionary War in Lexington and Concord, the unbelievable unspooled again with clockwork efficiency. In two hours, eight minutes, and 37 seconds, an American runner kept real marathon time – not by calendars or ceremonies, but with the unearthly rhythm of his feet and the audible beating of a city's anticipation.

Meb Keflezighi won the Boston Marathon, and as the tape fell in that place of grief a year ago, the indefinable concept of Boston Strong found remarkable resonance once more.

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