Friday, April 25, 2014

2014 Boston Marathon: The Men

On Monday, an American crossed the finish line first at the Boston Marathon, ending a drought three decades in the making.

The winner was one of the most decorated in American history, but at nearly 39 years of age and with a personal best of 2:09, probably the least likely to have made it happen.

His name: Mebrahtom Keflezighi

How did one of the oldest competitors in the field with one of the slowest personal bests manage to defeat potentially the most stacked field (on paper) in Boston history?

A: They didn't respect him

Why should they (the field) have been concerned with a runner who wasn't even invited to participate in this event in 2011, despite having finished 5th the year before? So what if the guy who ran a 2:23 in November at New York got a little bit of a lead? The concern was watching defending Boston champ, Lelisa Desisa.

Guess none of them got the memo that Meb believed he would win. In fact he's stated that as his goal for years now, and even said after that it was the only thing missing from making his career complete.

The men's and women's races couldn't have been more different. The women took advantage of the fantastic conditions (comfortable temperature, slight tailwind) to attack the race like no others had before. The men, meanwhile, went out at a conservative pace. In fact, it's almost silly to think that the field - many of whom have PBs under 2:06 - even allowed a 1:05 first half. By that point, Meb and fellow American Josphat Boit were 30 seconds clear of a group that contained some of the fastest marathoners on the planet.

That lead ballooned to 80 seconds, with the field biding its time, expecting a major crash-and-burn from Meb when the hills came. But it never happened, and soon they found themselves trying to close a 1500 foot gap over the course of a couple of miles. And boy, did they come close. While Meb continued to run his tempo, the field splintered as the pace ratcheted down to the 4:30s. The chasers were ripping furiously downhill towards the finish, closing the gap with every stride. But even with a relatively slow first half, you can only run so fast, and despite Wilson Chebet's best efforts in closing the gap to a handful of seconds in the last mile, he had clearly spent all his energy. Turning onto Boylston it was all Meb, who negative split his way to a personal best 2:08:37, and, more importantly, a Boston Marathon win.

Much like Shalane Flanagan had been motivated to run by last year's events, so too had Meb. Inscribed on his bib were the names of the 4 souls lost last year. Meb turned tragedy to triumph, lifting the spirits of a country in the process. Meb won, he had to - there was just no other way for the story to end.

Some of us were on hand in 2009 when Meb won the NYC Marathon, ending another near-30 year drought. Besides the countless NCAA and USA titles to his name, he also has an Olympic silver medal from 2004. He's a prime-time player, he comes up big when it counts. And yet a field of accomplished marathoners showed him so little respect that they were willing to spot him 80 seconds over a half marathon. For Wilson Chebet, that was a $75,000 mistake.

Team America?

After the race there were stories of an altruistic effort by the other Americans in the field to help ensure that an American - Meb, in this case - would win. When Meb and Boit separated from the field, it's stated, Ryan Hall encouraged the other Americans to not bridge the gap as he felt it would drag the Africans up to Meb. This is great fodder for our 140 character world, but worth looking into a bit deeper.

1. If the Kenyans and Ethiopians weren't worried about Meb and Boit, I can't imagine they would have been worried about guys like Jeff Eggleston and Nick Arciniaga. If Hall himself had moved up, that would likely have caused a reaction. But they're not going to worry about a guy wearing Under Armour Speedforms.

2. The "move" happened well before the half. What kind of races did those guys expect they were going to have? If anything, being encouraged to hold back is probably what allowed all those guys to run personal bests, or very close to them.

The reason you don't see team tactics in the marathon is because marathoning is not a team sport. Real (and significant) dollars are on the line, and the difference between 1st and 2nd is big. Though it would be awesome if there was a team format that meant something, it's not entirely likely. I saw after the race many people had "scored" the race as if it were Kenya vs USA, and it was close - maybe a 2 point victory for Kenya. The overlooked statistic is that in the field there are only a handful of Kenyans invited, and if they're not invited, they're not going to just show up. For Americans, that's a little different. Additionally, the insane pace of the last few miles was enough to blow up a few Africans so hard that they just dropped out, a fairly common practice for guys who realize they may not podium or finish as high as they'd like.

Ryan Hall

When Ryan Hall announced he was running Boston two months ago, it was met with the typical "will he even make it to the start line?" After all, he hasn't finished a marathon since January 2012, and he's scratched the past two years at Boston. He's a phenomenal talent who has had a bumpy road, but I thought that by waiting to say he was running he was more likely to be confident he could run well. There are always going to be a few Ryan Hall haters and believers, but I think no matter which side of the fence you're on we would all agree we'd like to see a great performance from him.

He changed up a lot (again) this year and seemed to be fit. But for a guy who has run <2:05 here (wind-aided) and a 2:06 flat marathon, not to mention a sub 60 minute half, he shouldn't have issues handling a 1:05 first half when conditions are good. I'm glad he ran, and more importantly glad he finished - even though for someone at that level I imagine a 2:17 is a tough pill to swallow. It was important he finish that race. Hope he can get himself back on track for a few more seasons.


"A 39 year old man wearing Skechers won the Boston Marathon."

It's impossible to think that the only American marathoner who has actually accomplished anything has to run in Skechers. It also is amazing that just 3 years ago the primary sponsor of this event did not invite him to run. Yet there they were this year making sure he was cloaked in a John Hancock towel after he finished. It's tough to bite the hand that feeds, but I just think the entire spectacle is ridiculous. It's too bad Meb is such a humble guy.

What is an American, Anyway?

Immediately following his historic win, you heard a lot of "oh, well he's not a REAL American."

Which begs the question: what is a real American? Would you consider real Americans to be people who are so proud to be here that they have all 10 children in their family not only graduate from college, but go onto professions in fields such as medicine, law, etc? How about a runner who wears the stars and stripes more proudly than anyone else, and would put his country above his own well-being?

Meb was born in Eritrea. His family left fled because it wasn't safe, and felt that a life in America could give them their best opportunity. They took nothing for granted, and worked hard to earn all they've achieved. Meb has been a citizen since 1998. And people want to argue that because he wasn't born here he's not an"American"? If that's how you feel, you're ignorant. I know plenty of people who were born here and are terrible Americans.

Let's be honest. Meb shouldn't have won this race. But he also probably shouldn't have won New York in 2009. And really, probably not a silver medal in 2004. Think about that. That's over a decade of marathoning. How many out there are able to compete at that level for a decade? His longevity and durability is as much a testament to his greatness as his resume. He's a championship racer and on Monday he brought his A++ game. He was ready to run, to win, to endure fatigue. He raced his own race and won from the front. He won for himself, he won for America.

And nobody deserves it more.


Ancient Chinese Secret said...

Jimmy Carter once said, 'We become not a melting pot but a beautiful mosaic. Different people, different beliefs, different yearnings, different hopes, different dreams.'

This is a very good read and thank you.

c-rad said...

Very well written Ryan! Meb - or as I respectfully call him - Mr. Keflezighi strikes me as a champion person above all else, and this makes him a champion runner. You have captured this aspect of his personality by highlighting all the odds that were stacked against him one week ago - age, lack of support, recent lackluster performances - including the "nay-sayers" in the very same American running community he so "masterly" (officially in 53 weeks) represents. Nevertheless, I cannot shake a feeling I get about Mr. Keflezighi when he smiles. Although humble and unassuming, at times he smirks like he knows a secret. A secret he can't teach in words, only footfalls. A secret he can't teach in a classroom, but rather on a city street. And if you stand patiently on a busy road in Boston one particularly patriotic Monday morning, the bells will ring, class will be in session, and Mr. Keflezighi will stride in to teach you his lesson... "Always respect your elders". ;)