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A year later, Meb Keflezighi’s Marathon victory still inspiring

(Boston Globe) 2014 Boston Marathon champion Meb Keflezighi talks about what winning the race meant to him. (By Alan Miller, Globe Staff)
(Boston Globe) 2014 Boston Marathon champion Meb Keflezighi talks about what winning the race meant to him. (By Alan Miller, Globe Staff)

Meb Keflezighi checks his iPhone for the up-to-the-minute tally, which is 12,475 unopened e-mails and texts since he won last year’s Boston Marathon. “You get voicemails,” he says. “Sometimes people are crying. They say, “I love you, man, you made all the difference.’ You hear so many good stories.”

It wasn’t just that Keflezighi became the first US male since 1983 to win the world’s most storied road race. It’s that he did it a year after the event was truncated and terrorized by twin bombs that killed three people and wounded 264 others near the Boylston Street finish line.

“This was more than a race,” says Keflezighi, who’ll be defending his crown on Monday morning. “It was the people’s race, in a way. To be the American to win after 31 years — people understood the magnitude, of how long it took. But also with what was on the line, to be able to pull victory for the city, for the people, for the victims, for just peace, I feel blessed.”

Keflezighi was a fitting symbol for both the race’s and the city’s resilience and resurgence. He was one of 11 children from a family that emigrated from war-ravaged Eritrea when he was 12 and settled in California. Keflezighi won four NCAA titles at UCLA, finished 12th in the 10,000 meters at the Sydney Olympics while fighting the flu, then switched to the marathon.

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After sitting in 24th place midway through the Athens race in 2004 he worked his way through the field amid scorching heat and earned a startling silver medal, the first US podium finish at the Games since Frank Shorter’s in 1976.

That was Keflezighi’s debut as a star-spangled rainmaker ending long domestic droughts. When he won New York in 2009 he was the first American man to manage it since Alberto Salazar in 1982. That triumph came two years after he’d nearly terminated his career in Manhattan at the Olympic trials for Beijing by finishing the race on cramped calves after he was out of contention and creating a hip stress fracture that kept him out of the Games.

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Retirement, he says, did cross his mind. “But I know I’m meant to be on this earth to be a runner,” Keflezighi says. So he treated his subsequent New York appearance as his personal Olympics, won the race, and decided to take a shot at 2012 and London, where he finished fourth. “That gave me confidence that I could win Boston,” he says.

Keflezighi was supposed to run here in 2013 but an uncooperative calf muscle sabotaged his training. Though he withdrew he still turned up for race-week activities and was inside the Fairmont Copley Plaza when the explosions rocked the area. “I threw an F-bomb and started crying,” Keflezighi recalled.

He’d planned on calling it a career after that autumn’s New York race but Keflezighi decided to keep going and come back to Boston and try to win what would be a race like no other. “Everybody knew what was on the line,” he says. “It was the Boston Strong mantra. Everybody was in it, whether you were here in Boston or elsewhere in the States or internationally. If there was any race to win, that was it.”

The form sheet said that Keflezighi was an unlikely victor. He was a 2:09 runner in a field where nearly a dozen Kenyans and Ethiopians had gone 2:06 or better. But he knew the course and he understood that a wise head often trumps fast feet.

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“If I wanted to win, make the podium, or run a personal best I needed to push the pace and I needed to do that from the front, not the back,” says Keflezighi, who was running his 20th marathon that day. “Boston 2014 probably was the only time that I ran my own race. Any other race someone will make a move and you have to react, instead of being the person who creates the move.”

Meb Keflezighi led for much of the race at the 2014 Boston Marathon.

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Boston04/21/14- At the Boston Marathon at the finish line ground level on Boylston Street mens winner Meb Keflezighi hugged by a woman believed to be his wife as he crosses the finish.Boston Globe staff photo by John Tlumacki(metro)

Keflezighi went out fast enough that he was up with the leaders but not so fast that he blew up, as he did in 2006. When the rest of the pack eased off in Natick he and Josphat Boit found themselves alone and pulling away. Once he shook Boit on the Wellesley downhill Keflezighi was by himself and stayed solo through the Newton hills and onto the flats.

With his tank running low at Coolidge Corner Keflezighi turned and spotted Kenya’s Wilson Chebet closing on him. “When I saw him three things came to mind,” he recalls. “ Slow down and save some energy. Maintain the gap. Or extend the gap.”

Keflezighi elected to maintain the gap until the turn at Hereford Street, where he opened the throttle. Then he remembered what Bill Rodgers, the four-time victor, and coach Bill Squires had told him about not losing the race on Boylston with the tape in view.

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“I was OK, don’t cramp up, you’ve got this, just relax,” Keflezighi recalls. “There was a lot of excitement, everybody was on their feet. It was like a jet going by, how loud the crowd was. It was an epic moment taking place and I was just delighted I was able to pull it out.”

At two weeks shy of 39 Keflezighi was the oldest Boston champion since Medford resident Smilin’ Jimmy Henigan in 1931. His payoff was the customary olive wreath, silver loving cup, medal, and $150,000 paycheck as well as a congratulatory call from the White House and the son of another African father.

But the enduring reward, Keflezighi says, has been the outpouring of gratitude from strangers inspired by his accomplishment on Patriots Day. “I’m running and I go in a park and it’s oh my gosh you made my day,” he says. “I met someone in physical therapy and she said this was the best thing that happened in 15 years in her life. You hear stories from cancer survivors, people who’ve been struggling. You connect with the people.”

Meb Keflezighi’s victory tour included a stop at Fenway Park to throw out the first pitch.
Meb Keflezighi’s victory tour included a stop at Fenway Park to throw out the first pitch.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

By now the only man to win Boston, New York, and an Olympic medal has completed his career checklist. “How do I set my goals? I always say run to win,” says Keflezighi, whose book “Meb for Mortals” was published this month. “That doesn’t necessarily mean first place. It’s just getting the best out of yourself. I’m still competitive. Why not?”

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So he’ll take the line again in Hopkinton with a chance to become the first champion to retain his title since Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot in 2008 and the first American to repeat since Rodgers won his third straight in 1980. He’s figuring on a fall marathon and then the Olympic trials next February in Los Angeles for a chance at a fourth trip to the Games.

“I love running,” Keflezighi says. “I love what running has done for me and I want to be able to push as long as I can. Am I going to win in the future? No, but I hope to be a good human being for the rest of my life.”

2015 men's elite field
Personal Best Country
Patrick Makau 2:03:38 (Berlin, 2011) Kenya
Lelisa Desisa 2:04:45 (Dubai, 2013) Ethiopia
Yemane Adhane Tsegay 2:04:48 (Rotterdam, 2012) Ethiopia
Tadese Tola 2:04:49 (Dubai, 2013) Ethiopia
Gebregziabher Gebremariam 2:04:53 (Boston, 2011) Ethiopia
Abel Kirui 2:05:04 (Rotterdam, 2009) Kenya
Wilson Chebet 2:05:27 (Rotterdam, 2011) Kenya
Frankline Chepkwony 2:06:11 (Eindhoven, 2012) Kenya
Wesley Korir 2:06:13 (Chicago, 2012) Kenya
Bernard Kipyego 2:06:22 (Amsterdam, 2014) Kenya
Dathan Ritzenhein 2:07:47 (Chicago, 2012) USA
Lusapho April 2:08:32 (Hannover, 2013) CR South Africa
Mebrahtom Keflezighi 2:08:37 (Boston, 2014) USA
Vitaliy Shafar 2:09:37 (Boston, 2014) Ukraine
Zersenay Tadese 2:10:41 (London, 2012) Eritrea
Dylan Wykes 2:10:47 (Rotterdam, 2012) Canada
Jeffrey Eggleston 2:10:52 (Gold Coast, 2014) USA
Nicholas Arciniaga 2:11:30 (Houston, 2011) USA
Fernando Cabada 2:11:36 (Berlin, 2014) USA
Matthew Tegenkamp 2:12:28 (Chicago, 2013) USA
SOURCE: John Hancock Financial
Globe Staff

Related coverage:

•  2015 Boston Marathon schedule and information


John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Jpowizglobe.