Yeah, Meb Keflezighi won the 2014 Boston Marathon. But how did he break a 31-year American drought? A three-step attack.
First, Meb made an early move at eight miles. This would appear stupid.
Racing a marathon is all about the second half of 26.2 miles, and the only way you can screw it up is by running too fast in the first: each second you'd subtract in the former would be exponentially added in the latter. Extending your lead gently is the perfect scenario, but most marathoners never are afforded this because they're recognized as a threat.
At almost 39 years old, Meb is a toothless tiger, and American Josphat Boit, with only a 2:13 to his name, is inexperienced. When they moved together early in the race they were perceived as a low risk to a slew of 15 men, mostly East African, who'd all run much, much faster. Meb's early feint didn't so much break open the race as sneak away from it. He dropped a few 4:50s, extending the gap to 33 seconds by mile 14.
"I was comfortable up in front," Meb said at the post-race press conference. "Come and catch us."
Cocky? Sure. Meb is on the wrong side of Father Time, and his best marathon times are five minutes slower than world-class. Furthermore, he had a disaster at the 2013 New York City Marathon, jogging it in with the better hobbyists. It makes sense the field would let him burn out in ignominy.
But one look at Meb's results and you understand the danger: an Olympic marathon silver medalist (2004), a former New York City Marathon champion (2009), and fourth in the 2012 Olympics marathon. He's like your dad, whom you arm-wrestle after a few beers and then realize that you've made a terrible mistake.
The blue-chipper marathoners didn't realize it at first, but Meb's slight gap took the fire out of a counterattack, and when you're punting after every series of downs, even a nick can be the coup de grace.
Meb, with Boit, held a one-touchdown lead. Where Meb sealed it was by attacking into the Newton Hills at 17 miles.
"We always run along that fine line of pacing," Meb said. "(Boit) gave me a gap, and I said, 'I always enjoy running by myself.'" He surged into the hills, leaving Boit, and it can't be exaggerated how dangerous this is.
The Newton Hills destroy Boston marathoners. The series of four culminate in the final, Heartbreak Hill, which tops off around 21 miles. Meb risked everything to keep the pressure on, leaving behind the only runner willing to work with him.
"We were scared to follow," runner-up Wilson Chebet, who's run over four minutes faster in the distance, said. "I was thinking that if I follow, I will kill myself."
So Chebet, along with the field, waited. And waiting was what let Meb win.
After Heartbreak, it was all crowd intensity. Sixth-place finisher Shalane Flanagan, in the women's race, described the volume as "like my insides were shaking."
"I used (the crowd) to propel me forward," Meb said. Even as his lead shrank to six seconds, he utilized a victory-hungry audience in a way unavailable to Chebet or third-place Frankline Chepkwony. Because he is American. And that was all the difference.
By the numbers, Meb wasn't a likely contender for a Boston title. That was supposed to go to Ryan Hall, the 30-year-old American record-holder in the half marathon, who shuffled into Boston with a result undeserving of his shoe contract. With his win, Meb cemented his title as the greatest American marathoner ever, the last accomplishment left in his long career. He didn't out-run a field of younger, faster athletes. He out-maneuvered them.
"Guess what? I didn't have a 2:04 or a 2:05 marathon," Meb Keflezighi said, "but I have the Boston title."