The reasons go far beyond an American male winning this race for the first time in 31 years.
Including the live broadcast, I’ve watched Meb Keflezighi break the tape at the 118th running of the Boston Marathon about two dozen times in the past three days and with every single viewing I’ve been sporting a sleeve of goosebumps.
For my money, there’s never been a more powerful moment in running history, especially this country’s running history, and the reasons go far beyond an American male winning this race for the first time in 31 years. Historically, the significance of Keflezighi’s victory is unmatched: he is the only male, American or otherwise, to post marathon wins in New York and Boston and also possess an Olympic marathon medal. Against a world-class level of competition, he beat some of the fastest marathoners on the planet, most all of whom entered the race with 26.2-mile personal bests 3 to 5 minutes faster than his own. That just doesn’t happen at many Marathon Majors anymore, where, even on a not-so-fast course like New York or Boston, you better have a personal best no slower than 2:06 if you want to even have a shot at contending for the win. Then again, this isn’t the first time Keflezighi has stepped on the starting line over his head and come out on top.
His winning time on Monday was 2 hours, 8 minutes and 37 seconds, a 31-second personal best for him, albeit a mark that’s fairly pedestrian by today’s world-class marathoning standards. But it was fast enough in Boston. And what’s amazing is that he’s set a new marathon PR three times in the past two-and-a-half years and he’s on the verge of turning 39.
“Coach Larsen told me that if everything went right I could run 2:08-2:07,” Keflezighi said after the race. “I knew it was a loaded field. I didn’t have a 2:04, 2:05 PR, but guess what? I have the Boston Marathon title.”
PHOTOS: Meb Keflezighi Career Highlights
In a carefully orchestrated time trial with pacemakers on a pancake flat course, Keflezighi isn’t likely to win, but in a championship style race such as New York, Boston or the Olympic Games, he’s proven time and time again that he’s one of the best in the business. The true embodiment of a warrior in racing flats, Keflezighi once again silenced the critics, surprised the doubters and cemented his status as one of the grittiest pure racers in modern-day marathoning.
Four-time Boston Marathon champion Bill Rodgers calls the 26.2-mile layout from Hopkinton to Boston a “duke-it-out, go-for-it kind of course” and Keflezighi, who said in the post-race press conference that he’s been reading Rodgers’ book “Marathon Man,” won this race in much the same way Boston Billy used to: make an early move and let everyone else try and chase you down.
“You know, when I was running alone, I said, ‘they made a mistake,’” Keflezighi told Competitor.com moments after the race. “They let me go. I’ve been reading Bill Rodgers’ book, ‘Marathon Man,’ and they let him go. And I tried to visualize that, race the way he did. I knew the turns that were coming. It was a blessing of God to be able to go because I made a move and I said they might come and catch me, but at the same time they’re going to have to put in the effort. Toward the end it was getting close but I was holding on for dear life…I just made a move when it counts.”
The competitive significance of his victory aside, the importance of Keflezighi’s achievement for his country following last year’s finish-line tragedies—where he was sitting as a spectator just moments before the first bomb went off—cannot be overlooked. Prior to the race, Keflezighi said that winning Boston in 2014 would be “beyond words,” an act of athletic heroism that transcends breaking the tape on Boylston Street, a source of immense pride for all marathoners, spectators and, on a larger scale, American citizens, who felt violated by last year’s heinous terrorist acts.
Looking back, could there have been a better choice than Keflezighi—appropriately adorned in his red, white and blue Skechers kit with the names of the four victims who died as a result of last year’s tragedy written on the corners of his racing bib—to lead the way for the runners, spectators and Bostonians on their collective mission to “take back the finish line” on Boylston Street this past Monday? It was the type of lead-by-example display of resilience, which whether you’re a fan of running or not, that carries with it the power to inspire and unite an entire nation in a time of healing.
“Run to Overcome” is the name of Keflezighi’s 2010 autobiography, and it’s also a fitting theme for what happened in Boston this past Monday: he led a city, a nation and field of more than 30,000 runners to overcome the tragedy of last year’s marathon, he overcame the odds of beating a world-class field, that on paper should have left him several minutes in the rearview mirror, and he overcame the odds of being an aging marathoner, becoming the oldest winner of the Boston Marathon since 1931.
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Lastly, one of the best byproducts of watching an epic athletic performance is its unique ability to inspire other athletes to emulate greatness. In a time when running suffers from under-exposure and a less-than-rock solid fan base, Keflezighi opened the eyes of casual running fans and uninformed observers alike and showed that running can not only be an exciting sport, but it can bring people together on so many levels.
How nerve-rackingly thrilling was it to watch Meb over the final few miles of Monday’s race?
It was akin to watching the Red Sox in the 12th inning of Game 7 of the World Series trying to hold on to a 2-1 lead with a 3-2 count, two outs and the bases loaded. You’re waiting nervously on every pitch, or in Meb’s case earlier this week, every stride.
Keflezighi’s win was the type of performance that can serve as the catalyst for another running resurgence in this country. With his win, Keflezighi was been catapulted to the front pages of nearly every major national newspaper, he was the lead story on highly trafficked websites such as ESPN.com, Yahoo.com and many others, received “the call” from President Barack Obama on Tuesday, threw out the first pitch at the Fenway Park on Wednesday night, and has a slew of national TV appearances lined up over the next few weeks. It’s the type of mainstream exposure running desperately needs in this country.
Circumstances of the situation surrounding this year’s Boston Marathon aside—or very likely because of it—in a little over 2 hours on Monday, Keflezighi brought an unmatched amount of national media attention to the sport of running that hasn’t happened on such a large scale since perhaps Frank Shorter won Olympic gold in Munich in 1972 and Joan Samuelson won Olympic gold in Los Angeles in 1984. A younger generation of competitive runners has a new hero, someone any parent would want their kid to follow, cheer for and aspire to be like; aging runners who think their best days are behind them have new hope that a new personal best may lie in their future; and the average age-group runner, and even non-runners, have been inspired to be part of a supportive community that can use running to bring so much good into not only their own lives, but the lives of others.
These goosebumps won’t be going away anytime soon.