BOSTON — The symbolism was so perfect, so emotionally overwhelming, that it was impossible to watch the Boston Marathon without tears in your eyes and a lump in your throat.
Especially when the man you were watching began crying too.
There was Meb Keflezighi, whose family fled war-ravaged Eritrea some three decades ago, who is the quintessence of the American success story, who represents the best of us and the best in us, doing what no U.S. man had done in 31 years.
And he was doing it a year after the events that tore apart the hearts of millions but could not destroy the soul of the world’s best-known footrace.
And he was doing it with the kind of courage athletes can exemplify. It is not the bravery of men and women in battle or that of the first responders in Boston a year ago or that of families trying to reassemble lives ripped apart by an act of terrorist insanity, but it is a competitive courage admirable on its own terms.
“This is beyond running,” Keflezighi said in a television interview after winning Monday’s 118th Boston Marathon. “It’s for Boston and the U.S. and the world.
“We are resilient. We never give up.”
Keflezighi’s seemingly insurmountable lead, 81 seconds after 18 miles, had dwindled to eight seconds over Kenya’s Wilson Chebet with less than 2 miles left in the 26.2-mile race. Rarely does the leader hold on in such situations, even when the pursuer has expended enormous amounts of energy to close the gap.
But Keflezighi summoned the physical and mental strength to do just that.
He finished 11 seconds ahead of Chebet with a personal best time of 2 hours, 8 minutes, 37 seconds. Two weeks shy of his 39th birthday, Keflezighi became the oldest Boston Marathon men’s winner since 41-year-old Clarence DeMar in 1930.
And the first U.S. man to win at Boston since Greg Meyer in 1983.
And, as more than just an underdog in a deep field of talented East African runners, he was a thoroughly unexpected winner despite his impressive career record.
“It’s great for America on Patriots’ Day,” Keflezighi said. “Last year was miserable. Today was great.”
Patriots’ Day began in 1894 as a Massachusetts holiday commemorating the Revolutionary War battles of Lexington and Concord. The Boston Marathon has been part of the holiday since its inception in 1897.
Last year, Keflezighi watched the race from the grandstands at the finish line. He said he had left the area five minutes before the bomb explosions that killed three people (a policeman died later in the pursuit of the bombers) and left about 260 injured, some maimed. Keflezighi said he immediately texted another top U.S. marathoner, Ryan Hall, who would finish 20th, saying they both had to run this year.
“The bomb happened, and every day since, I said I want to come back and win,” Keflezighi said.
Tatyana McFadden, the Paralympic superstar from the University of Illinois, wore the name of one of those killed, 8-year-old Martin Richards, on her jersey while winning a second straight Boston Marathon wheelchair title.
Rita Jeptoo of Kenya broke a 12-year-old course record as she successfully defended her women’s title.
Keflezighi (pronounced ka-FLEZ-ghee) had the names of the four dead written on his runner’s identification bib. Such a gesture was characteristic of an athlete who long has been one of the most respected and most gracious people in sports.
He is also, without question, now one of the top-two men’s marathoners in U.S. history, ranking — and this can be legitimately debated — behind only Frank Shorter, the 1972 OIympic champion and 1976 silver medalist.
In 2004, Keflezighi finished second at the Athens Olympics, becoming the first U.S. man since Shorter to win an Olympic marathon medal. In 2009, Keflezighi became the first U.S. man to win the New York Marathon since 1982.
Both of those successes were as unexpected as Monday’s.
Mebrahtom Keflezighi, third oldest of 11 children, arrived in the United States at age 12. He won state titles for San Diego High School, NCAA titles for UCLA. He became a U.S. citizen in 1998 and has competed for the United States in three Olympics, finishing fourth in the marathon in 2012 and 12th in the 10,000 meters in 2000.
No other race in his career, perhaps no marathon in history, has received more buildup and been under a more intense spotlight than Monday’s Boston Marathon. Until last year, no other sporting event may have been more of a pure civic celebration, which made this year’s race a mix of resolve to mark a tragedy and to move on, reclaiming past joy without forgetting more recent sadness.
“It was my dream to win Boston,” Keflezighi said at the post-race news conference. “This is probably the most meaningful win for an American. … It couldn’t have come at a better time for the United States.”
When “The Star-Spangled Banner” played Monday in his honor, Keflezighi bit his trembling lip and shook his head in disbelief. His name may be a mouthful to many of his compatriots, but it will be on Bostonians’ lips forever, resonating as long and loud as the names of any of their marathon’s legendary champions.