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Posted: Sunday November 1, 2009 4:02PM; Updated: Sunday November 1, 2009 4:02PM
David Epstein David Epstein >
INSIDE OLYMPIC SPORTS

Keflezighi posts an historic NYC Marathon win for a fallen friend

Story Highlights

Meb Keflezighi is the first U.S. man to win the NYC Marathon since 1982

He won just two years after his friend Ryan Shay died while running in NYC

A U.S. citizen since 1998, he said he was proud to win for his adopted country

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Meb Keflezighi won the New York City Marathon just two days shy of the two-year anniversary of his friend Ryan Shay's death.
AP

If you're 34-year-old Meb Keflezighi, what tribute could you possibly come up with that would be a fitting honor for your friend and training partner Ryan Shay, who collapsed and died in November 2007 during the U.S. Olympic marathon trials in New York City?

In a news conference before the 2009 New York City Marathon, you could ask for a moment of silence in his honor. Check.

Or, just as you turn into Central Park between miles 23 and 24, you could break away from Robert Cheruiyot, the four-time Boston Marathon champion from Kenya, en route to becoming the first American to win in New York since Ronald Reagan was settling into his first term 27 years ago. Check.

And then, less than a mile later at the bottom of Cat Hill, now that you are solidly in the lead with the television cameras -- and the eyes of the world -- on only you, you can make the symbol of the cross on your chest as you fly by the spot where Shay, a Notre Dame grad, fell. Even though Shay's father, Joe Shay, isn't watching the race -- there are too many faces he painfully recognizes -- he might say afterward that you are "one of the class acts in all of sports" and that your gesture is "just so significant." Check.

And just to make it all more meaningful, perhaps it can come after a year-and-a-half of rehab following that terrible November day two years ago, when Shay died and when your body fall apart. When you got sick days before the race, cramped up because of dehydration during it, and ended up crawling around your hotel room on all fours because of the pain in your legs. When, for days "you practically couldn't get up and walk to the bathroom," according to your wife, Yordanos. And when, months later, a doctor would find the stress fracture in your hip that had you thinking about hanging up your racing flats for good.

You could go through all that and then return to New York in 2009 to run a personal best and win a marathon for the first time, well after people were beginning to "write you off" because of age and injuries, as Ryan Hall, the most-hyped U.S. marathoner who finished three places behind you on Sunday, put it. Check.

That would be even more perfect because, instead of retiring, you would have struggled back to health and all the way back to the starting line in New York, where you could force yourself to forget that nearly all the two million spectators lining the New York City course expect an athlete running for Ethiopia, Kenya, Brazil or Morocco to pass first. Check.

That last part shouldn't be too terribly difficult, given that you already banished the naysayers when you took silver at the Olympic marathon in Athens, the first medal for a U.S. man since Frank Shorter took silver in 1976. And even before that, you joined a generation of American distance runners, like Shay, who knew that Americans could run with Africans, and who were resolved never to let there be another time like 2000, when the U.S. qualified only one runner for the Olympic marathon.

And maybe you can make sure, on race day, to be the only runner out there wearing a USA singlet, so that it will be that much more unique when you enter the last quarter-mile slapping the letters on your chest and remembering how Shay took personal offense when people said you weren't a "real American" even though you've been here since you were 12. And so that it will be that much more special when, in post-race interviews, you recite the exact day you came to America -- October 21, 1987 -- from Italy after your family left Eritrea as refugees; and when you mention how much you loved going to school at UCLA, and how grateful you are for the opportunities, in school and in sport, that America gave you, and how proud you were to become a citizen in 1998. Check.

And then, when you cross the line in first, you can let the tears of sorrow and the tears of joy mix as they flow down your cheeks. Check.

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