By James O'Brien
"Boston Strong. Meb Strong." With those words resounding in his head through the closing miles, Mebrahtom Keflezighi won the 118th Boston Marathon, becoming the first American man to do so since Greg Meyer in 1983. There was an ironic beauty in the fact that, on race morning, Meyer was among those who wished Meb well. He told me, "You can do it," the newly crowned winner explained. "Make it happen."
Meb made it happen in a way that was surprising, bewildering, and inspiring. From the gun, he surged to the front of the pack; early on, he forged a demonstrative lead; and, in the closing miles he weathered a super-charged surge from Wilson Chebet that almost spoiled the American’s dreams. But, at the line, the dream remained intact. Keflezighi, just two weeks shy of his 39th birthday, had turned back an armada of sub-2:06 thoroughbreds to take one of the sporting world’s most prestigious titles. "I don't have a 2:04, 2:05," Keflezighi proffered with a smile, "but I've got the Boston Marathon title."
There can be no disputing that the Eritrean-born Meb is a man who runs on inspiration. When he won New York in 2009, he was buoyed by crowds who responded to the "USA" emblazoned across his chest. In London, at the 2012 Olympic Games, he ran spurred by the thought that, despite his 2004 silver medal, he was not even introduced on the starting line. In Boston, there was the tragedy of 2013, a horror that spread way beyond the running community and the confines of the city. It resonated as few things could have, but also served as motivation for runners such as Meb, who swore that they would come back 12 months later and make a statement.
"I've got an eight-year-old daughter," he proffered, thinking of the explosions that killed three, including eight-year-old Martin Richard. "It could have been her. Or my wife. Or me. I was a spectator last year."
One of the most evocative images of Boston 2014 will be Meb, cresting Heartbreak Hill, deep in fatigue and responding with a clenched fist of salute to the roars of “U-S-A!” This was not jingoism; this was a simple display of solidarity, of empathy, of support for “Boston Strong” and for “Meb Strong”. "This is probably the most meaningful victory for an American, because of what happened last year," Keflezighi stated. If you ponder the big wins - Shorter in Munich in 1972; Rodgers four-times in Boston and four times in New York - Meb may not be wrong. "I've been reading 'Marathon Man' (Rodgers' autobiography) every day," Keflezighi explained. "Since last year, I've been visualizing this day."
From the second the gun sounded in Hopkinton at 10:00 a.m., Keflezighi attacked the Boston course like he meant it. Despite the fact of seven men alongside him with PBs of 2:05:30 or faster - including 2013 winner, Lelisa Desisa (PB 2:04:45), and Chicago winner Dennis Kimetto (PB 2:03:45) - Meb strode to the forefront, assuming control and, for all intents and purposes, installing himself as a pacemaker for all of his more fancied and exceedingly grateful competitors.
It was certainly curious to watch the early miles unfold. They were not blistering, despite the near perfect conditions - 4:49 through the first mile and 15:09 at 5K; but Meb remained in the pole position with everybody else happy to tag along and sit in for the ride. Desisa (ETH) was there, as was Kimetto (KEN), plus Abdi Adbirahman (USA), Markos Geneti (ETH), Tilahun Regassa (ETH), Frankline Chepkwony (KEN), Gebre Gebremariam (ETH), Wilson Chebet (KEN), Ryan Hall (USA), Jason Hartmann (USA), plus a glut of others. The lead pack numbered close to 30; if you were supposed to be in there, you were, and you were happy for Meb to be your rabbit.
A 10K split of 30:28 saw Hall at the forefront; but it was not a lead. It was a footstep. The phalanx remained tight, with Meb still right there, always clearly stating his intent. It was right around seven miles that the first move of significance came. With that mark passed in 34:16, Keflezighi inched his way forward, opening a few meters, a little daylight on the cumbersome group. But it wasn't really a move; it wasn't even significant. It was just an accident. Tilahun Regassa covered; but nobody else bothered. They barely noticed. It was too early, every year somebody makes a move like this, and the real contenders are savvy enough to bide their time. If you're serious about Boston, that's what you do. You bide your time.
One mile later, though, (eight in 39:10), the margin over the pack had grown to 10 seconds. Regassa had slid backwards, but Josphat Boit (USA) had moved forward, inching further away from the chasers, led by Hall, Geneti, and Nicholas Arciniaga (USA), who remained oblivious to the danger. They'd seen it all before. You don't win Boston by running from the front.
"We were scared to follow," Wilson Chebet recalled later. "We were scared of the hills."
A peculiar admission, indeed, and one barely comprehensible in a pack of the finest aerobic machines on the planet.
Had they been paying closer attention - had they been closer - the pack may have heeded some early warning signs shortly after the 10 mile mark (49:08). Suddenly, somehow, the field of contenders was close to 30 seconds in arrears; still not majorly significant, but certainly worth heeding. Meb and Boit charged onward, both looking impressively relaxed, while the pack maintained its formation, playing the waiting game.
Passing Wellesley College at 12.5 miles, Keflezighi and Boit hung tight, Meb invariably in the lead, Boit running in his footsteps. The two had been training partners in recent months at their Mammoth Lakes, CA base; thus, they could have been working together, except that they didn't appear to be. Meb was always the aggressor, always the stride in front; Boit was the tracker, sitting in, hoping for prey. The screams of encouragement were almost deafening; a few years previous, Ryan Hall had slapped hands and blown kisses to the adoring Wellesley crowds as he screamed to a 2:04:58 finish. This time, the leaders were impassive, seemingly oblivious. Except that they weren't.
"The crowd was phenomenal," recounted Meb. "The energy was just phenomenal. I used the energy."
At 13 miles, the clock read 1:03:49 and, at half way, in the town of Wellesley, it was 1:04:20. 38 seconds back, the pack trundled along, most them still there, cruising at 2:10 pace, still too soon for them to worry. Desisa had to watch Kimetto who had to watch Gebremariam who had to watch Hall who had to watch Geneti who had to watch Regassa ... and so on. It wasn't long, though, before the realization dawned. "I couldn't see Meb," said Chebet, "I could only see the straight road."
If there was a move of true decision, it came at 15 miles (1:13:30). With a barely perceptible increase in tempo, Meb opened a three meter gap. Just as quickly, that became five, then 10. Passing 25K (1:15:59), Keflezighi was 25 meters up on Boit with the pack 45 seconds in arrears. Nobody could have realized at the time but, with that move, the 118th Boston Marathon was decided and an era of American drought had come to an end.
That is not to say that it was easy. The hills of Lower Newton Falls after the 16 mile mark (1:18:07 for Meb, 1:18:15 for Boit) made a distinct impact. Prior to this point, it had all been roll and relax and hold it on cruise control; but this incline was a trial. The better part of 600 meters long and coming at a point where the fatigue of miles was already setting it, it is a softening blow before the celebrated Newton Hills another mile down the road. The effort could not be seen in Meb's form or in his rhythm; but you could see it on his face.
Through 17 miles (1:23:04), Keflezighi was away. Boit was dropped and dropping further, as Meb made the right turn at the Newton firehouse with the infamous Hills in front of him. Boit was 25 seconds down and the pack was literally nowhere in sight. But this is where this race is won and lost, if not on the hills themselves, then by virtue of the damage they inflict. Even here, however, the unheralded leader maintained superb equilibrium, notwithstanding the deepening lines across his brow. If the leader needed inspiration or motivation, surely this is where he found it. Nearing the top of the testing hills, with 19.5 miles in his legs, a knot of spectators saw him and knew him and launched into a spontaneous chant of "U-S-A! U-S-A!" Keflezighi gave them not so much as a glance; but, he raised his right hand, clenched his fist and pumped the air in acknowledgement. That was all it took for the decibels to soar still louder. It was a moment of connection between athlete and fans that could hardly have happened anywhere else - Heartbreak Hill, one year after the heartbreak, America's favorite adopted son in the lead of the world's most celebrated marathon. When they make the movie, this scene will be the tear-jerker.
But this was not the finale; six miles remained and many a commanding lead has been whittled to nothing and many a leader toppled from his perch at this stage. Passing 20 miles in 1:37:52, the last of the three Newton Hills takes the runners to 20.5 miles. Keflezighi worked through this final incline, relishing the respite of the coming downhills and responding to the roars of the crowd with more fist-pumps. Controlled exuberance or over-confidence? At this stage, it asked as many questions as it answered.
Passing 21 miles in 1:43:04 and 22 in 1:47:52, Keflezighi scorched the downhills a la Bill Rodgers, stealing a look back as he raced through Cleveland Circle - site of Rodgers' former running store - and turning towards the skyline of downtown and the Boylston Street finish line. The glance would have revealed nothing; the crowds were too large and road too winding. Possibly, it was just as well that Meb could not see what was coming. The leader charged onward through 23 (1:52:48) and 24 miles (1:57:35), clocking an incremental split of 4:47. At that pace, anybody hoping to make inroads would have to be running at a ludicrous pace - 4:30, even.
Enter Wilson Chebet. The 28-year-old Kenyan boasts a 2:05:27 PB from Rotterdam in 2011. Having been as much as 90 seconds down on the leaders eight or so miles previously, he was now cranking along at precisely 4:30 pace, his eyes locked on Keflezighi's back like a heat seeking missile. At 24 miles, Meb's advantage had been trimmed to a scant and dangerous 12 seconds.
"At 22 miles, I had a little stomach issue. I almost threw up," revealed Keflezighi. "Going through the last two miles was a challenge; but that's the marathon. But I knew he had worked hard to catch up to me, so I knew I had to save something."
In fact, while Chebet hard torn holes in Meb's seemingly insurmountable lead, once the 24 mile mark had passed, the gap remained as it was - eight to 10 seconds. That didn't stop anybody from biting their nails, however. Making the right turn onto Hereford Street and the left onto Boylston Street and the finish line, there was more than enough room for Chebet to deny America's dreams. The only one who remained confident was the leader.
"As soon as I got to Boylston Street, I knew I had it," he revealed.
The noise along the final straight cannot be described. Picture a jumbo jet and Howitzer at full blast at the same time and you might get the picture. Keflezighi screamed down the home straight, undeniable in victory, crossing the line in a PB of 2:08:37, fulfilling the dreams of untold millions, not least his own. It was fitting.
"My career was fulfilled 99.9%," said the winner, looking back on his Olympic silver, his New York win, his Trials victory. "Today makes it 110%. This was the missing link. To have this trophy is beyond my dreams."
Chebet was hardly decimated, but the victory was decisive, the second placer crossing in 2:08:48. Even then, he held a bare two seconds in hand over the fast closing Frankline Chepkwony. Said Chebet, "I thought if I ran a 4:30 mile, I would win. But towards the end, I was tired. Once I saw the finish line approaching, I knew I couldn't win."
The day, the event, the occasion, of course, belonged to the winner. "I was comfortable in front," he explained. "I just kept pushing. I just kept thinking, 'Boston Strong, Meb Strong.' I'm almost 39; I just set a PB, and I just won the Boston Marathon. It was my dream."
For his win, Meb claimed $150,000. In second, Chebet earned $75,000 and Chepkwony $40,000.
A word for the over 40s. The Boston masters' title went to 42-year-old Ulrich Steidl from Seattle, WA who claimed the title in 2:19:48. Viacheslav Shabunin from Russia took the silver medal in 2:20:43, with Michael Wardian from Arlington, VA third in 2:23:32.
If there was any year in Boston's history that called for a truly memorable, truly momentous outcome, it is safe to say that this was it.