By now you’ve probably heard about U.S. runner Meb Keflezighi’s emotional win at Monday’s Boston Marathon, the first time an American man has won in 31 years (the ongoing drought for U.S. women is barely shorter at 29 years).
If not, a quick recap of the first Boston since last year’s deadly finish-line bombing: Meb, ancient by elite running standards at nearly 39, opened a roughly one minute, 20 second lead mid-race and then held off Kenyan Wilson Chebet, who closed the gap to under 10 seconds in the final miles.
Left unknown is why the race unfolded so strangely, with a blazing-fast field of elite Kenyans and Ethiopians (arriving with personal bests several minutes faster than Meb’s) allowing such a large gap to stay open for much of the race.
The running-junkie website Letsrun.com published a story Tuesday that may help answer the question. It looks like several Americans, once they realized that Meb had broken well away, may have used an ad-hoc team tactic reminiscent of the Tour de France and other cycling races to help Meb maintain his advantage.
According to their story, the quirky, self-coached U.S. runner Ryan Hall — once the nation’s best who has struggled with injuries in recent years — saw a way to help Meb maintain his lead.
He urged other Americans in the chase pack to avoid pushing the pace in order to discourage the Africans from starting to close the gap earlier.
Here’s what American Nick Arciniaga, who would finish seventh, told Letsrun.com:
“I was in the lead [chase] pack with all of the other Americans, all of the Africans and about 15k to 20k, Ryan Hall and I were running side by side, kind of in front of the lead chase pack but not really pushing it, and Ryan just kept turning over to me, and talking like, ‘Hey don’t push the pace. If they want to let those guys go, they are going to have work to catch back up to them. We are not going to help them out with that at all. If we want an American to win, this is how it’s going to be done.’”
“From then on in, the game plan between myself and Ryan, and we told Abdi [Abdirahman] and few of the other guys as well when they catch up or go to the front, ‘We’re trying to get an American to win this race. That’s one of the biggest goals about today.’”
To be sure, these kinds of tactics are more common in cycling, which is organized around teams and where tucking in behind other riders — either teammates or allies against a common foe — saves massive amounts of energy.
But runners can work together, too. U.S. runner Craig Leon told Letsrun.com a similar story to Nick Arciniaga’s, saying that shortly after the halfway point, as the pace was relatively slow, Hall told him and fellow American Jason Hartmann, “Let’s give Meb a little bit of distance.”
“So we kept it slow. I don’t know if that did anything to help. But those guys had to work to catch Meb. And I think Ryan was really smart to be able to say that,” Leon said. Hall, who would fade badly and finish in 2:17:50 (a disastrous time for pros), confirmed the tactic through his agent, according to the Letsrun.com story.
Nobody is taking credit away from Meb for the gritty victory. Leon talked about Meb’s combination of talent and professionalism and race smarts. But Arciniaga was pleased that the small effect was enough to help Meb win.
The story, by the way, is drawing some skepticism on Letsrun.com‘s rough-and-tumble message board.