Meb Keflezighi gave Boston and the United States the victory they longed for but held out little hope for in the most emotional and significant Boston Marathon in history, crossing the finish line in 2:08:37 and becoming the first U.S. man to win Boston since 1983.
Keflezighi did it with a courage and determination. If the city was to find some closure and healing after last year's horrific finish-line bombings, there could be no better outcome than the way Keflezighi did it.
We could hardly believe what we were seeing with each stride of one of the most astonishing races in Boston's 118-year marathon history. Through the early miles it was Americans doing the work with Keflezighi, Ryan Hall and Josphat Boit up front, followed closely by one of the most fearsome fields of sub-2:05 men ever assembled. They're kidding, we thought.
In the middle stages, Keflezighi kept it going on a steady 2:08 schedule, accompanied by Boit (from Mammoth Lakes, Calif.) while the big pack drifted 20 seconds and eventually 40 seconds behind. The other elites must be watching each other, we thought, disregarding the impetuous lightweights from the United States and biding their time before starting the real race and gobbling them up.
By the Newton Hills, we wondered how long they would keep it up. How long could they wait with a runner as experienced as Keflezighi so far out of sight?
Keflezighi wanted to finish in 2:08 and simply ran for that, regardless of what the more feared and fancied stars were doing. He dropped Boit, put his head down on the uphills, picked up the cadence on the downs and he kept on pulling away. At 25 kilometers, Meb was 57 seconds ahead. At 30 kilometers, when we thought the pack must start the pursuit, he was away by 1:20.
Then we began to believe. Whatever was happening way back, Keflezighi was putting on a display of sheer craft, running with consummate skill and mental focus. He did it, all right -- every tangent, every drink station and, above all, every uphill and every downhill section.
He shot a couple of quick glances behind, probably as incredulous as the onlookers to see nothing but empty road. Even with such a lead, the master tactician was giving himself every possible foot of road from the pursuers, perhaps fearing, as we were, that he would need it.
Suddenly, at 23 miles, he did need it. Wilson Chebet was visible, though Chebet must have started the serious chasing well before that point. Keflezighi's giant 1:20 lead was down to less than 20 seconds, then almost immediately to 16 and then 12.
Keflezighi appeared to be toast. When Frankline Chepkwony came into sight as well, it seemed the Kenyans were asserting their own.
No, it's our own, Keflezighi and the whooping crowds seemed to be thinking. His legs looked weary, he took some glances behind, but he kept cranking out miles in the 4:47-4:56 range. Coming to Commowealth Avenue, with those sharp little climbs out of the road tunnels, he was working but never faltering.
Timing the gap to Chebet was a kind of silent drama: 12 seconds, 9 seconds, 8 seconds, 7 seconds, 6.8 seconds, 8 seconds, 8 seconds, 8 seconds. Kefelezighi was holding and Chebet was suffering, struggling visibly on a small uphill. Chepkwony was making little impact. Keflezighi was going to do it
Around the final corner onto Boylston Street, he crossed himself and committed to the last minutes of unrelenting effort. Whatever is said about the dream script, and however we feel about the emotion of this most timely American victory, this was above all a runner showing how he can get the best from himself.
At age 38, after a 20-year career, at the end of a long and lonely race, when by all the rules he should have faded, been passed and left to find consolation in fourth or fifth, Keflezighi ran to win. However many strides this marathon took him, he never put a foot down wrong.
The U.S. and Boston will justly claim this performance, but it was Keflezighi Strong as well as Boston Strong. It was the race of a man without the supreme natural talent of several of his rivals, a man who beat them -- thrashed most of them -- by simply using every drop of ability, skill, and racing intelligence.
You can't ask for more. On Monday, Meb Keflezighi was the ultimate runner's runner.