On a day that celebrated survival and re-birth, Meb Keflezighi held off a charging field and overcame his own aching legs on a nearly 39-year-old body to become the first U.S. man to win the Boston Marathon since 1983, writing a new and glorious chapter in a career that seemed nearly over. While pounding down Boylston Street in front of screaming crowds, where just a year ago explosions killed three people and injured 260 others, Keflezighi found a burst of energy -- a necessary second wind after seeing his 90-second lead slip to just seven seconds -- and turned the site of tragedy into a setting for triumph.
After he crossed the famous finish line, Keflezighi jumped into the arms of his wife, Yordanos, and and later his brother and agent Merhawi. He kissed the ground, and proceeded to hug and high-five numerous well-wishers, including Greg Meyer, the last U.S. men's winner of the Boston Marathon. Keflezighi's winning time of two hours, eight minutes, 37 seconds, placed him 11 seconds ahead of runner-up Wilson Chebet of Kenya and 13 seconds ahead of Frankline Chepkwony, also of Kenya.
Keflezighi's victory provided a storybook ending to this redemption race, of sorts: The Eritrean émigré with an enormous pride in his adopted country is helping the U.S. heal on Patriots' Day.
"I thank God for this day," said Keflezighi, referred to as a gentleman by fellow runners and members of the media, after the race. "Boston strong, America strong. I couldn't hope for a better day. ... Before today my career was 99 percent fulfilled. Today it is 110 percent fulfilled. This was the missing link on my résumé."
Against an imposing field of runners from traditional powers Kenya and Ethiopia, Keflezighi and Josphat Boit, a Kenyan native and U.S. citizen, pulled ahead of the pack -- clearly reluctant to follow them -- building a lead of nearly a minute. The rolling hills that would hit later in the race, including the infamous final rise dubbed Heartbreak, kept some of the other runners from chasing them through 21 miles.
"We were scared to follow," said Chebet. "We knew from 10 kilometers, there would be very tough hills. I thought if I follow him, I would kill myself."
Chebet began to close with a furious rush over the final four miles, eventually coming within seven seconds of Keflezighi in the final mile. The American looked over his shoulder several times before finding his final kick. With various aches and pains in his knees and hip, Keflezighi had cut back on the volume of his training in California, which may actually have been a blessing.
"I was careful not to beat myself up because I thought I needed to be able to finish strong," he said. Keflezighi felt tightness in his quads at mile 21, and felt as though he was going to throw up at mile 22, but then he found his kick. "At this point in my career, holding back on training actually helped me at the end of the race. I felt fresher."
With his victory, Keflezighi added to a career that has only gotten better in his later years. He had been written off before the Olympics in 2004, only to go on and take the silver medal in the marathon at the Athens Games. As he did in today's race, Keflezighi then ran on emotion more than speed or endurance. His times, taken by themselves, don't look terribly impressive, but his flair for the dramatic does.
"Today was not just about me," he said. "This was Boston Strong. I did it for the people. God gave me the energy to persevere and win it. I'm blessed to be an American and this is beautiful, really beautiful, to do it for Boston. This place is the heartbeat of the country's history and of the country's running history. It's a gift, an honor, to be part of this."
More than most, Keflezighi appreciates just what that means. In 2009, when he became the first U.S. male in 27 years to win the New York City Marathon, he wore his Team USA singlet and pointed to his chest as he ran the final 200 meters in Central Park -- not showcasing a company logo, but honoring the place he calls home. Some pundits who didn't know his story incorrectly criticized Keflezighi's win as empty.
"The fact that he's not American-born takes away from the magnitude of the achievement the headline implies," wrote Darren Rovell on CNBC.com after his win in 2009. "Nothing against Keflezighi, but he's like a ringer you hire to work a couple hours at your office so that you can win the executive softball league."
In fact, Keflezighi's story has always been a profoundly American success story.
During Eritrea's 30-year war for independence from Ethiopia, soldiers would search for boys aged 12 and older to conscript into the military. Those who refused or tried to run were shot.
The Keflezighis had an elaborate escape route through a backdoor for Fitsum and Aklilu, Meb's older brothers, once they reached the age of conscription. The Keflezighis were among the few families in the village whose house had a metal roof. They still lacked electricity and would tell time by sticking a rock in the sand and waiting for the shadow it cast to pass a certain point.
Russom, the family patriarch, was an open supporter of liberation forces, and therefore a target of militia. Police constantly threatened him as he tried to manage his grocery store in Asmara, the capital city. In 1981, he fled to Sudan by walking 600 miles in the dead of night. He slept during the days, drained swamp water through his clothes in order to drink, and carried only a flashlight he could shine in the faces of hyenas who might want to eat him.
Russom eventually brought the family to San Diego. Meb had never seen a car until one pulled up next to him in his Eritrean village of Adi Beyani when he was 10, and he tried to race it. He came to the States as a 12-year-old and ran his first formal race as a San Diego schoolboy.
The students there at Roosevelt Junior High teased Meb because of his old clothes and quiet demeanor. That is until he won a mile race in five minutes and 20 seconds.
"That was the first time other kids showed me respect," he said.
Yes, the talent was there, but the formal running training hadn't yet begun. Even when Meb started progressing through the high school ranks, Russom stuck to his edict about education coming before sports, often waking his children at 4:00 a.m. to study an English book with them.
"Education is something nobody can take away from you," Russom would tell his kids.
They all listened, and the nine Keflezighi children graduated with high-level degrees. Meb often jokes that he is the least accomplished member of his family, because he graduated from UCLA with a 3.95 GPA, a communications degree and several national titles, but no Master's degree.
"The theme of hard work and thankfulness always stayed with me," he says.
Keflezighi had talked about retiring after the London Olympics of 2012, where he finished fourth, or perhaps after taking just one more year to enjoy a long victory lap of races. But later that year he had planned to run the New York City Marathon once again, only to have it canceled in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Last year, he was at the finish line in Boston with his brother cheering on the competitors in Boston, and left five minutes before the explosions.
"It was very emotional to see what happened in the city," he said. "Then to watch the people come back so strong and pull together so much, I knew I wanted to be here for Boston. Honestly the finishing touch for me that helped me make my decision was seeing the Red Sox win. I don't know if I was a fan before, but how could you not cheer for Boston? What did that mean to everybody? It meant so much. If I had one more moment in my career, I wanted it to be here. I really wanted it as much as anything in my career ... A year ago we were helpless. We started crying. We both cried again today, but this time they were tears of joy."