The Sweet Story Behind Meb Keflezighi’s Boston Marathon Win

Meb Keflezighi, of the United States, is greeted with a hug at the finish line of the 118th Boston Marathon on Monday, April 21, 2014.
National Journal
Ben Geman
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Ben Geman
April 22, 2014, 11:11 a.m.

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 Let­s­ 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 Let­s­

“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 Let­s­ 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 Let­s­ 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 Let­s­‘s rough-and-tumble mes­sage board.

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