Just beyond the finish line of last Sunday's ING New York City Marathon, fourth-place finisher Ryan Hall of the U.S. embraced the winner, fellow countryman Meb Keflezighi, and said, "You deserved this." It was true. He really did. ¶ New York had carved a small hole in Keflezighi's life. Four times—2002, '04, '05 and '06—he had run its marathon, and four times he had fallen short. In 2007 he ran the Olympic trials marathon, held almost entirely within Central Park, and lost his close friend Ryan Shay, who collapsed and died of heart failure five miles into the race. Meb, as he is known to all in the running world, finished eighth in that race, hobbled by a stress fracture of his right hip that left him unable to walk. In the days after the competition he had to crawl on all fours just to get to the bathroom.
On Sunday, Keflezighi, 34, ran a personal best of 2:09:15 to win the 40th New York Marathon, becoming the first U.S. runner to take the five-borough race since Alberto Salazar in 1982. (Keflezighi emigrated from Eritrea at age 12 and became a U.S. citizen in 1998.) "It doesn't get any better," he said after the race, considering his "whole thing with New York."
His performance continued the steady rise of U.S. distance running, which, appropriately, began when Keflezighi and Deena Kastor won silver and bronze marathon medals, respectively, at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Since then two other U.S. runners have won championship medals—Kara Goucher, bronze in the 10,000 at the 2007 Worlds, and Shalane Flanagan, bronze in the 10,000 at the 2008 Olympics—and this past summer in Zurich, Dathan Ritzenhein ran the 5,000 meters in 12:56.27 to break Bob Kennedy's 13-year-old U.S. record.
Hall, who ran 2:06:17 at London in 2008, had been expected to be the next American to win a big-time marathon. But Keflezighi had quietly recovered from his injury at an age when others might have been finished. ("It took me a full year," he says.) He took control of Sunday's race just before the 24-mile mark, surging away from Kenya's Robert Cheruiyot, a four-time Boston winner, as the course turned into Central Park.
At the bottom of a long hill, Keflezighi passed the spot where Shay had died. The two friends had trained together; Keflezighi had admired Shay's relentless work ethic, and Shay had passionately defended Keflezighi on message boards that questioned whether Meb was truly an American runner. Now, in full flight, Keflezighi made the sign of the cross with his right hand, at once honoring the past and pointing to the future.
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