Keflezighi, 38, set a new PR in becoming the first American man to win Boston since Greg Meyer in 1983.
Meb Keflezighi is as Americanized as any immigrant, but it’s possible his grasp of baseball lore might be a little deficient, or he would have heeded Satchel Paige’s admonition of “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”
In spite of disregarding that dictum dozens of times in the last half of the race, Keflezighi made running history of his own, becoming the first American man to win the Boston Marathon since Greg Meyer’s 1983 victory. In a race that seemed tailor-made for him, Keflezighi led virtually wire-to-wire against a loaded field of athletes that either underestimated him or underperformed, crossing the Boylston Street finish line in 2:08:37, a 31-second PR just two weeks shy of his 39th birthday. In doing so, he held off a fast-closing pair of Kenyans, Wilson Chebet and Frankline Chepkwony, by 11 and 13 seconds, respectively, and earned the $150,000 winner’s paycheck.
“I looked back quite a bit to gauge my lead,” Keflezighi said. “Looking back is not a bad thing. Sometimes it can save you a win.”
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Indeed, for much of the race, those backward glances seemed to be followed by a look of surprise, as Keflezighi must have wondered where all the fast guys were, and why they were letting him get so far ahead.
While Keflezighi began the race at PR pace, in company with fellow American Ryan Hall, he had to be shocked when, without any significant move on his part, he found himself 8 seconds ahead by the 8-mile mark, with only the recently naturalized Josphat Boit as company. At halfway, Keflezighi made his first and only really significant move, dropping Boit, determined to soldier on alone the rest of the way.
“I didn’t think I’d be all alone at that point, but I always enjoy running by myself,” Keflezighi said. “You can follow the tangents and get to the aid stations without worrying about anyone else, and use the press truck to pull you along.”
Keflezighi rolled down the hills into Newton Lower Falls, continuing to click off sub-5-minute miles, and maintaining that pace as he began the ascent of the series of climbs leading up to Boston College.
“I’ve always said Meb runs hills, especially downhills, as well as anyone,” said Bob Larsen, who’s guided Keflezighi’s career since the two began working together at UCLA two decades ago.
“I wanted to conquer the hills,” Keflezighi said. “I just kept thinking ‘form, technique’ and keeping up the effort.”
Meanwhile, dawdling along well behind was a group of some two dozen men, many of whom must have found the lead pace positively pedestrian. “We were running together through 20K,” said Nick Arciniaga, who would finish as the second American in a seventh-place 2:11:47. “We could hear them talking to each other, then they made a move, but we caught up with them a while later, and they were all just kind of running together, nobody really pushing it.”
There was no one in sight behind Keflezighi as he crested Heartbreak Hill, nor even on the long straight stretch down Beacon Street to the finish. Splits showed his lead had stretched to more than a minute by 20 miles, but finally, at least one person, Chebet, was stirring behind him, in solo pursuit, stringing together miles in the low 4:30s and slicing the margin down to 20 and then 12 seconds. That dropped as low as 6 seconds as they passed Fenway Park, where the Red Sox were playing their traditional Patriots’ Day morning game, which might have given Keflezighi a bit of additional motivation.
“When the Red Sox won and put the trophy on the finish line last year, I wanted to do that for the runners,” he said.
Chebet would get no closer; going through the Massachusetts Avenue underpass, Keflezighi clawed back 2 seconds, and it became apparent the Kenyan had fired his last bullet in chasing down the leader. “When I got to Boylston Street, I knew I had it won,” Keflezighi said. Over the final stretch he began a fist-pumping celebration, adding a last measure of angst to the screaming fans who had been holding their breath, hoping against hope for a miracle on Boylston to finally and completely erase the horrific memory of last year.
“Coach Larsen told me that if everything went right I could run 2:08-2:07,” he said. “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.”
Coming after his 2009 victory in New York, silver medal at the 2004 Olympics and a win at the 2012 Olympic Trials, Keflezighi termed his win at Boston “the icing on the cake.”
“I was delighted to have 99.9 percent of my career fulfilled, but today – 110 percent,” he said.
Many had deemed Keflezighi’s 23rd place 2:23:47 from last year’s New York City Marathon to be the final chapter in the twilight of his career; after today, they were talking about a possible fourth Olympic team in 2016.
Keflezighi was noncommittal about his chances for something two years down the road, again demonstrating his unfamiliarity with Satchel Paige-isms. Otherwise, he might have cited another adage from the great Negro League hurler: “Age is a question of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”
After Arciniaga (2:11:47), the next American was Jeffrey Eggleston (2:11:57), who finished eighth. Boit (11th, 2:12:52) was next, followed by Craig Leon (12th, 2:14:28), Mike Morgan (13th, 2:14:40), Adbi Abdirahman (16th, 2:16:06), Brett Gotcher (16th, 2:17:16), Scott Macpherson (19th, 2:17:46) and Ryan Hall (20th, 2:17:50).
“This is for the people, for Boston Strong,” Keflezighi said in a TV interview afterward. “We’re resilient as runners and we wanted to give back. This year, an American winning it, I’m just beyond words.”
Keflezighi, who won the New York City Marathon in 2009, was asked how it felt to win Boston a year after two bombs ripped through the finish line area. Three spectators were killed and more than 260 were injured in the blasts. He did not run last year but was on hand to watch the race.
“I was a spectator last year, the spectators that died were just like me,” he said. “I said, ‘Of course I’m gonna come back and try to win this thing.’
“I visualized the race every day since it happened. You know what? We did it. It’s not just about me, it’s for the United States.”
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Keflezighi was visibly in pain over the last few miles of the race as he pushed toward the finish line on Boylston Street. He appeared to feed off the crowd, particularly in the final stretch when he raised his arms in triumph before his 26.2-mile journey was complete.
“[The crowd] pushed me for the last 4 or 5 miles,” Keflezighi said. “I was like, ‘You know what? Boston Strong.’ I wanted to give it everything I had. This solidifies my career. It was 99.9 percent complete before … that big, big, big 0.1 percent was missing.”