Meb Keflezighi had heard that the best road runner in the country likely was going to get a congratulatory phone call from the man who runs the country and he knew how he was going to respond.
“Thank you for the opportunity that the US has given me,” the first American male to win the Boston Marathon in more than three decades said Tuesday morning after his unexpected triumph had heartened the city, the country, and the world.
Keflezighi, who later tweeted, “I just received THE call from President @barackobama,” was born in Eritrea when that eastern African land was at war with Ethiopia.
“My life would have been a soldier,” he reflected. “I would have been dead in the war. The life that I have is just beyond my dreams.”
His early life was all about gunfire and bombs and land mines, about corpses and shattered bodies.
“To hear that again last year, it took me back,” said Keflezighi, who was inside the Copley Plaza when the bombs went off on Boylston Street during last year’s race.
So he determined that he would come back to run this year and, as always, he would run to win. No man his age had won Boston since 1931 nor any American since 1983, but the odds were irrelevant to him.
“This was a big one,” Keflezighi said. “The whole world was watching. I said, ‘I’m going to give it all I have, but if I don’t win, some people are going to know who Meb is.’ I just wanted to inspire people.”
Keflezighi did more than that. He put himself on the Mount Rushmore of American marathoning alongside Frank Shorter, Alberto Salazar, and Bill Rodgers. Keflezighi had been the first Yank to win an Olympic medal since Shorter and the first to claim the New York title since Salazar.
On Monday, schooled by his readings from Rodgers’s book “Marathon Man”, Keflezighi mastered the ancient layout the way Boston Billy did. “This course is designed for someone like me,” he said.
This is a course built for downhill racers who take off when their rivals are tightening up. Rodgers was the best man of his generation at that and possibly the best ever.
Keflezighi was the best here and now and when the Ethiopian and Kenyan aces let him go off by himself through Wellesley and beyond, he was both surprised and delighted.
“I would have been lunatic and crazy if I was running 2:04 pace,” he said. “But I looked at my watch and I was 2:07-2:08.”
The Desisas and Gebremariams and Kimettos and Kogos were a half-minute behind Keflezighi coming out of Natick, but none of them bothered to reel him in.
“Maybe they overlooked him just a little bit,” said Bob Larsen, who has coached Keflezighi since his UCLA days. “They were all waiting for someone else to lead them to Meb and they just waited too long. They were all a little bit too cautious and maybe a little bit too confident that either Meb would be coming back or they would run him down. It was just a poor decision.”
What his rivals should have known is that Keflezighi is a 2:09 guy who always goes the distance and that more often than not 2:09 is good enough to win here. Since 1995 only five Boston victors have been faster than he was Monday, when Keflezighi ran 2:08.37.
Once he headed into the Newton hills alone, the race was over. Keflezighi was averaging 4:54 a mile and cruising comfortably as though it was a warm Saturday night on the 405 Freeway in his hometown of San Diego.
“He was checking himself off like he’s a racecar,” said Larsen. “What’s going here, what’s doing there? Are the brakes all right? Are the wheels still spinning? He’s so good at that.”
Keflezighi remembered what Rodgers had written, that the race is won on Heartbreak. “Well, there’s nobody here right now,” he told himself when he crested the final rise.
Nobody except the thousands of fans lining the road for the final 5 miles who were lauding and loving and lifting him. “Usually it’s hard to run away in a marathon,” Keflezighi mused. “But when you’re doing it for the right reason and the crowd is behind you and God is blessing you and there are four angels that we lost last year, I felt the energy and you know what? It could not have happened at a better time.”
Keflezighi had run here twice before and it had not been his day. This time everything told him that it might be as long as he could hold off the man he knew would be coming after him in the final couple of miles. It was Kenya’s Wilson Chebet, a 2:05 speed racer who was a Ferrari on the flats but Keflezighi didn’t know that. “Just an orange shirt,” he said.
Keflezighi’s stomach was acting up and he feared that he’d soon be cramping. “God, just get me to the finish line,” Keflezighi prayed. But Chebet was running on fumes, too, and when Keflezighi turned off Hereford and onto Boylston he knew that nobody was getting past him. Not this year, not on this stretch of pavement.
“It was catastrophic what happened on Boylston Street last year, but it happened once in 117 years,” Keflezighi observed. “What a better way to come and win the title for the United States.”
As the line came up, Keflezighi was tempted to grab a flag and finish in star-spangled glory, but, with two men now chasing him, he wisely opted for delayed gratification as he had time and again here.
“Things don’t happen when we want them sometimes,” Keflezighi said. “They have to play out themselves and they did for me yesterday. And I couldn’t be happier and prouder to be an American to do it.”