BOSTON – Before Meb Keflezighi embarked on the 26.2-mile journey Monday to become the first American man to win the Boston Marathon since 1983, he wrote four names on his yellow race bib.
Martin, for Martin Richard.
Krystle, for Krystle Campbell.
Ling, for Lu Lingzi.
Sean, for Sean Collier.
The first three died in the bombings that occurred near the finish line of last year’s race. The last was shot and killed, investigators said, by one of the alleged bombers.
“It could’ve been me, my wife or me watching as a spectator,” said Keflezighi, a 38-year-old UCLA graduate.
The four names scrawled in black marker permeated Keflezighi’s 2 hours, 8 minutes, 37 seconds winding past chants of “USA!” and “Boston Strong” T-shirts. On a day when almost 32,000 runners started the race shadowed by heightened security and even more emotion, he provided a fitting ending.
Last year, an injury kept Keflezighi out of the race and in the grandstands on Boylston Street near the finish line. He departed five minutes before the first pressure-cooker bomb exploded.
This time he repeated that popular mantra, “Boston Strong,” and his own invention – “Meb Strong” – to spur himself on. As he fought to maintain a sizable lead during the race’s final miles, his thoughts turned to the names on the bib between prayers for the strength to finish.
In the process, Keflezighi delivered the first Boston victory by an American man since Greg Meyer in 1983.
“It couldn’t happen at a better time to win for the United States,” Keflezighi said.
By 17 miles, Keflezighi owned a lead that assured no dramatic finish would be necessary.
The pack, including second-place finisher Wilson Chebet of Kenya, failed to reel Keflezighi in. Even a wave of nausea 22 miles in didn’t throw off Keflezighi.
“I always told people I thought he could do really well on this course,” said his coach, Bob Larsen, who believed this was the strongest men’s field in a marathon that started in 1897. “We couldn’t have scripted this any better.”
Behind every grin and quip, however, the finality of the four names on his race bib lingered.
“This is for the victims,” Keflezighi said. “We can’t get them back.”
Rita Jeptoo of Kenya successfully defended the women’s title she said she could not enjoy a year ago. Jeptoo finished in a course-record 2 hours, 18 minutes, 57 seconds. She is a three-time Boston Marathon champion, having also won in 2006.
Jeptoo broke away from a group of five runners at the 23-mile mark. Buzunesh Deba of Ethiopia finished second in 2:19:59.
American Shalane Flanagan finished seventh after leading for more than half the race.
She gambled by setting the early pace but fell back on the Newton Hills about 21 miles into the race.
“It does mean a lot to me that my city was proud of me,” she said. “I’m proud of how I ran. I don’t wish it was easier. I wish I was better.”