Apr 21, 2014, 3:15 PM EST
BOSTON — Meb Keflezighi left a spectator grandstand at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon about five minutes before the first bomb went off.
“All of a sudden, I heard something,” said Keflezighi, who had withdrawn from the race 10 days before with a calf injury but went to the world’s oldest annual marathon as a fan. “I didn’t think it was a big deal.”
He heard another sound about 12 seconds later and was shoved into a Copley Plaza hotel near the Boylston Street finish line. What he heard were two bombs that killed three people and injured more than 260.
“We started crying because we knew how many people were there,” Keflezighi said.
Keflezighi cried again at the Boston Marathon on Monday.
“Tears of joy,” he said.
Keflezighi, 38 and the oldest elite runner in the field by three years, became the first U.S. man to win the Boston Marathon since 1983 in a shocking upset.
Keflezighi moved his sunglasses to the top of his head and raised his arms as he crossed the finish line to win by 11 seconds over Kenyan Wilson Chebet. He cried and was draped in an American flag on Boylston Street afterward. He ran with the names of the three who died from the bombings, plus a police officer killed by the suspects days later, written on the corners of his racing bib.
“This is beyond running,” Keflezighi said just outside the finish.
“Boston Strong. Meb Strong,” he said. “I was going to give everything I had for the people.”
Keflezighi was born in Eritrea, but his story is quintessential, polite American, from his pleased-to-meet-you smile to his colorful Skechers shoes. He came to the U.S. as a refugee from the war-torn African nation, after a brief stint in Italy, in 1987. The story is documented in his autobiography, “Run to Overcome,” a phrase that also defined the Patriots’ Day race and the last year in Boston.
“It gave me hope,” Keflezighi said of his upbringing.
Keflezighi, who won in 2:08:37, a personal record, texted Olympic teammate Ryan Hall after last year’s bombings and said they had to run Boston the next year. Hall, slowed by injuries the last two years, finished his first marathon since the 2012 Olympics in 2:17:50, 20th place.
“The bomb happened, and every day since, I said I want to come back and win it,” Keflezighi said. “Beyond words.”
Keflezighi won the 2004 Olympic marathon silver medal and the 2009 New York City Marathon.
But he was doubted last week and for the last several months, coming into his first start in Boston since finishing fifth in 2010.
A reporter asked him in a press conference if he would retire if he crossed the finish line first in Boston. It wasn’t an absurd question, but perhaps the most startling point of it was the suggestion he could have won.
Keflezighi was a disappointing 23rd at November’s New York City Marathon and 10th at his warm-up race, the NYC Half Marathon, on March 16.
It’s been a trying few years for Keflezighi after winning New York in 2009. He was dropped by Nike in 2011, and went seven months without a shoe contract before Skechers.
“I’d be mistaken if I said I didn’t consider retiring,” he said.
He now has 11 sponsors.
He felt slighted before the 2012 Olympic marathon when he wasn’t among 10 men introduced in a front row before the race as contenders. He was the only man in the field of more than 100 with an Olympic medal already to his name.
Keflezighi finished fourth in London, a minute and a half outside of a medal. Injured last year and slow in his last two New York races, Keflezighi came to Boston with three goals, from at best winning to at worst running a personal best.
So he set out hard.
“I can’t run a personal best from behind,” he said. “I can’t win a race from behind. That’s what I kept thinking to myself.”
Keflezighi took off from the start in Hopkinton and led with Kenyan-born American Josphat Boit by 30 seconds at the halfway mark. He said he didn’t see his half marathon split (1:04:21).
Keflezighi pulled away from Boit between the 15th and 19th miles, opening up a one-minute lead. Then he struggled.
The margin dropped to about eight seconds at the 25-mile mark. But he summoned the kind of energy that’s helped him remain an elite marathoner for the last decade.
“You can’t touch the heart,” Keflezighi said. “Every day you’ve got to work hard and make it happen.”
He credited the crowd, which officials prepared to be one million strong through eight cities and towns, twice the usual amount. Go Meb, they said. You can pull it off, Meb. You’ve got this, Meb.
“I used them to propel me forward,” Keflezighi said.
He ran a personal best by 31 seconds.
Asked about his place among U.S. distance greats, he mentioned 1972 Olympic marathon champion Frank Shorter, three-time New York City Marathon champion Alberto Salazar and four-time Boston Marathon champion Bill Rodgers.
“To have that in one person … I’m delighted to have that career,” said Keflezighi, the first American man to win an Olympic medal and both the New York City and Boston Marathons. “I always say 99.9 of my career was fulfilled. Today, 110 percent.”
Keflezighi, who won $150,000 for his victory Monday, announced before the Boston Marathon he would donate $10,000 to the Martin W. Richard Charitable Foundation. Martin was the 8-year-old boy who died in last year’s bombings. Keflezighi met his dad at a charity event.
Keflezighi has personal evidence of what it was like in Boston on April 15, 2013. He took photos of finishers from his grandstand seat before the bombing and posted them on YouTube.
He cherished his post-race experience this year, walking through the medical tent. He received high fives. Thanks, from Boston. Thanks, from America.
“The scene was different last year,” Keflezighi said, wearing a golden wreath atop his bald head. “As an athlete, we have dreams. Today, the dream and the reality meet.”
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