They want it known that their fellow American won the laurel wreath on his own.
“All credit to Meb to put himself out there,” saluted Craig Leon. “He probably thought about that race plan for months and he executed it perfectly. If we had any part in his winning that race, it was a very, very small part.”
What Meb Keflezighi did on Patriots Day to become the first US male in 31 years to win the Boston Marathon was a case study in a savvy runner seizing his moment. “Meb just ran the most beautiful race you could imagine at that given time,” said Jason Hartmann, who’d been the top domestic finisher the previous two years. “It was really a work of art.”
Yet his seven countrymen clearly set up the easel and arranged the canvas for him by moderating the pace until Keflezighi broke away midway through. Their collaboration, orchestrated by Olympic teammate Ryan Hall, was a demonstration of the kind of team tactics that the East Africans have been using to dominate the world’s most famous footrace for a quarter-century.
Not only did his star-spangled comrades help spring Keflezighi to an 11-second victory over Kenya’s Wilson Chebet, the first by an American here since Greg Meyer in 1983, their patience and prudence paid off on the result sheet, where three US runners placed in the top eight, six in the top 13, and 10 in the top 20. That was the best collective showing since 2006 when there were four homegrown products in the top seven.
It was a Ryder Cup moment, as Leon told Mike Morgan, who finished just behind him. Not until after they’d crossed the line did they and the other Yanks know that one of them had won. “I let out a huge whoop,” said Nick Arciniaga, who finished seventh after dropping out two years ago. “I felt more excited about that than my own performance.”
In a year that followed a race ruined by terror and tragedy, having a US runner break the tape on Boylston Street seemed more important than ever. “I wanted an American to win this race,” said Arciniaga. “If it was Meb, Ryan or Josphat [Boit], I just wanted an American to win.”
“We have to do teamwork,” Moses Kigen Kipkosgei observed before the 2011 race, in which Geoffrey Mutai set a world-best of 2 hours, 3 minutes, 2 seconds. “You cannot win a race on your own. You have to be assisted.”
That assistance not only meant taking turns setting the pace but also playing cat-and-mouse with rivals, boxing them in, and, occasionally, banging them around. In 2000, when Kenya’s Elijah Lagat nipped Ethiopia’s Gezahegne Abera in a photo finish, Abera claimed that Lagat and Moses Tanui had jostled and tripped him.
“I was in between them and it was very difficult,” claimed the Ethiopian, who went on to win the Olympic gold medal in Sydney that summer. “They were pushing me and kicking me. I can’t say if it was intentional or not.”
The Ethiopians got some payback last year when Lelisa Desisa, Gebre Gebremariam, and Markos Geneti finished 1-3-6 with a concerted effort. This time, the Americans had the numbers to play the collective game, as well. The lead group that came through Framingham included eight of them, plus seven Kenyans and four Ethiopians. That was a novelty for Keflezighi and Hall, who didn’t have nearly as much friendly company during their earlier visits here.
Hall had joked on the previous Friday about having been the “fringe-y mzungu (Swahili for white person)” surrounded by Africans. This time, he and Keflezighi had a domestic cohort that had both the experience and the ability to hang with the leaders.
Abdirahman was a four-time Olympian on the road and track. Hartmann had been fourth here in 2012 and 2013. Arciniaga had submitted top-10 efforts in Boston and New York. Eggleston was the top US finisher at last year’s world championships in Moscow, as was Boit at last month’s world half marathon championships in Copenhagen. And Leon was 10th here last year and 13th in Chicago.
The Africans had seven men in the field who’d run under 2:06. Had they gone out at that tempo they likely would have left several of the Yanks behind early. But when the pack went through the first 5 miles in 24:29, more than a minute over the course-record pace, they made it easier for the US bunch to stay up with the leaders.
“There was no sense of urgency that I could tell,” said Leon. “[The Africans] were really more focused on themselves and trying to beat each other. All the major players were still in that group. I call it top-dog syndrome. Everyone waited for the top dog to make the first move.”
Hall had done much the same in his 2009 debut here, intent on making it “an honest race,” and ended up setting the table for Ethiopia’s Deriba Merga and Kenya’s Daniel Rono. Not this time, he advised his countrymen whenever one of them seemed on the verge of getting itchy feet. “Ryan would say, relax, guys,” said Arciniaga. “A move is going to be made. Don’t let it be us.”
As they were coming through Natick, Keflezighi and Boit had opened up 10 seconds on the leaders. That worried Chebet, who was wary of letting an Olympic silver medalist get out of sight. “I realize the danger,” he said.
If the other Africans did, it wasn’t evident. “You waited for the moment when it was just going to open up,” said Hartmann, “and the moment never really happened the way it normally does.”
Keflezighi was a 38-year-old who’d never broken 2:09. But his pedigree should have been a warning. “Meb was a silver medalist,” said Hartmann. “He won New York. His résumé speaks for itself. I feel that they probably didn’t respect him enough, and that was their mistake.”
If the Africans wanted to keep hitting the snooze button, the Americans were happy to let them. “There was no sense in poking the bees’ nest,” said Leon. “Ryan would turn to us and say, ‘Let’s keep it here.’ I knew exactly what he meant: ‘Hey, let’s give Meb as much of a cushion as we can.’ ”
Coming into Wellesley after 12 miles, Keflezighi and Boit, who train together in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., were more than half a minute ahead of the pack and proceeding comfortably. “It probably felt like a Sunday long run,” said Leon.
Keflezighi obviously was having a superb day, and Hall, who hadn’t run a marathon since the London Games because of a series of injuries, was not. So he embraced the role of setup man. “Though yesterday was not how I had envisioned my race, I believe I fulfilled the purpose God had for me in it,” tweeted Hall, who finished 20th.
“Ryan knew how important it was for an American to do well and he knew that our best shot was Meb,” said Leon. “It really speaks to the kind of person that Ryan Hall is. He deserves a lot of credit for what he did.”
By the time the Africans woke up and sped up and shed the US members of the pack before the halfway point, Keflezighi was long gone. “Boston isn’t London and it’s not Berlin,” observed Leon. “You can’t just make up that distance on those hills.”
When he reached Heartbreak, Keflezighi was 52 seconds ahead. “I was thinking, man, it’s going to be tough for them to get him now,” said Bob Larsen, his longtime coach. The top dogs — defending champion Desisa, Gebremariam, and Dennis Kimetto — all had DNFed or were about to. Only Chebet had a chance and his tank ran dry just before Kenmore Square.
“Meb was the man,” said Leon. “For him to go out and run his race and do his thing, it was awesome. It was inspiring.”
Keflezighi collected the laurel wreath and the $150,000 check that came with it, but this was one for the home team, too. Maybe Hall et al will get matching jackets. Just like the Ryder Cup.
John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.