As you may have heard, American marathon runner Meb Keflezighi won the Boston Marathon on Monday- the first American to do so in 31 years. He ran a personal best of 2:08.37 to do it, and at nearly 39 years old, stunned a field that included several younger, more highly touted East Africans with sub-2:07 PB's. I was there, a tenth of a mile from the finish, when Meb came flying down Boylston, riding the roar of the crowd, holding offWilson Chebet's late surge. It was one of the gutsiest things I've ever seen.
Of course, the dickhead contingent on the internet has responded predictably over the past two days. The Fox News commentariat is (again) questioning his status as an American, since he was born in what is now Eritrea and later emigrated to the United States with his family. To them, he's just an East African ringer who happens to live in the States. A subsection of commentors on LetsRun.com has a thread going proclaiming that the fix was in and that the elite Africans were paid off to let Keflezighi win so that Boston and the media could have their storybook headlines. A few have even thrown around accusations of PED's in explaining how an "old" runner could win such a big race against a stacked field.
Frankly, neither of these theories hold any water whatsoever. Here's why:
Theory 1: Keflezighi isn't an American.
This is easily the more ridiculous of the two claims. Meb went to middle school, high school and college here in the US. In fact, he didn't run a competitive race until arriving on US soil at the age of 12. He's a UCLA graduate (class of '99) and still trains with his former college coach Bob Larsen - his only coach for the last 21 years - and as such is a true product of the U.S. running system. His resume during that timeincludes a pair of California high school state championships, four NCAA titles and three national cross-country championships. He's been a US citizen since 1998 and has represented the United States in the past three Olympics, including winning silver for the U.S. at the 2004 Olympics and finishingfourth in London in 2012.
If he was born and raised in Kenya, became a world-class runner and then came to the U.S. for a paycheck, I could see the gray area. But Meb came here as a poor child escaping a war-torn Ethiopia, with zero competitive running experience. Everything he has accomplished has come as a result of his training in the U.S. at every stage of his career. He's an immigrant, but this is a nation of immigrants. My grandmother came here as an infant on a boat from Italy. By definition, Meb is just as much an American as she is. But because my grandmother's name is of European and not African origin, no one would ever question her right to call herself an American.
Theory 2: The marathon was fixed for Keflezighi to win.
You have to admit, it seems almost too perfect for a U.S. runner to win the first race after the bombings, when no American has won in over three decades. And the manner in which he won seemed fishy - he ran a very consistent race, never really being chased hard by the fast Africans until the final quarter of the race. However, if you know a little bit about the Boston course in particular, and about Meb's history, it's actually more reasonable to think that he did, infact, win the race fair and square.
Meb has never been a fast PR guy. Fitting with his history as a cross-country runner and the fact that he lives and trains at altitude in the mountains of California, he tends to finish high on races that are hilly, difficult and highly tactical. There are plenty of other runners who have put down more impressive times on the flatter, faster courses of Dubai, Berlin, London or Chicago, but Boston is not like that. Pacers are not allowed, so the pack doesn't string out the way it does in other marathons that do allow "rabbits" for the fastest runners to chase. There's a lot of variation in its topography. It's net downhill because it runs from inland to the ocean, but includes the brutal Newton Hills in the back half, which tend to define the race. Weather is also a factor - in 2011, with the wind blowing hard out of the west, Geoffrey Mutai ran a bonkers 2:03.02to win; that timestill stands as the fastest marathon ever run. The following year, with no wind and temperatures in the 80's, the winning time was nearly 10 minutes slower. The upshot of all of this is that Boston is a racer's race. It rewards strategy over outright speed.
Meb has run well at Boston before, including a 5th-place finish in 2006 and a third-place in 2009. He also won the 2009 New York Marathon, which is another of the slower, more tactical races. So he knows the course, and despite not having a sub-2:06 PR like many of the fast Kenyans, he's a proven winner in similar situations. And the times that have won Boston in the last 20 years or so? Throwing out the extraordinary conditions in '11 and '12, it's usually something between 2:07 and 2:10. Meb's Boston PR was 2:09.26.
When you look at the way he won the race, a few things jump out. First of all, his pace was very consistent. He moved away from the pack early, running a pace that would bring him in at about 2:08, slowed a bit through the hills, then held off a late charge near the finish. Most of the faster Africans, on the other hand, were content to run in a pack about a minute back from Keflezighi and fellow American Josphat Boit. Another highly favored American, Ryan Hall, said in a post-race interview that he cautioned the other U.S. runners in the trailing pack not to push to reel in Meb and Boit. I think he knew what Meb was trying to do and that any effort to push the tempo (and by extension, drag the Africans closer to Meb) would work against his strategy. None of the other Americans had the speed to win it, so the only thing they could do was jeopardize Meb's shot at a victory.
The really curious thing about the actions of the African contingent is that none of them really pursued Meb even as he was moving away from the pack early, and not at a hard pace. That's raised a lot of red flags among the conspiracy theorists. However, I don't think there was any kind of collusion. I think two things were at work there – one, they didn't take Meb's early push seriously, and two, they stayed too focused on each other. I think that in a field as deep as this one (the BAA went all-out to assemble a good field after last year's bombings), nobody wanted to take the chance of pushing the tempo to pursue an early front-runner, pulling a strong competitor along and getting blown by at the end. So everyone watched each other, and when none of the big guns took Meb's early move as a threat, the rest of the pack stayed put at a more cautious pace. Maybe they thought he and Boit were fired up with patriotic zeal and would burn out. (Boit, who had never run faster than 2:13, eventually did exactly that.) Or that Meb was too old, or had spent too much time doing half-marathon training (he won the U.S. half-marathon championship a couple months ago). For whatever reason, they let them go.
Meanwhile, Meb's simple strategy, when considered against the nuances of the course showed an air of brilliance. He ran strong in the first half – not fast enough to burn out, but enough that he had a lead heading into the Newton hills. This ensured that whoever wanted to catch him would either have to:
a) Push hard through the toughest part of the course to catch him, burning lots of energy in the process, or
b) Wait until after the hills, then turn fast miles over the last 20% of the course to reel him in.
I think ultimately the thing that won Meb the race was a smart strategy that forced everyone else to push too hard during the toughest part of the course if they wanted to catch him. So I think it's reasonable that the remaining elites were unable to catch Keflezighi once he had held his lead through the hills. I don't think that's any evidence of fixing or collusion.
Yes, it's true that several of the elite Africans did not put up very fast times. However, I think that's symptomatic of the slow, tactical pace that the pack exhibited over the first two-thirds to three-quarters of the course, watching each other, no one wanting to stick their neck out. If you go out in 65 minutes rather than 62 on the Boston course, you're never going to get those three minutes back on the hilly second half. Wilson Chebet tried to, mounting a furious charge once he realized Meb wasn't fading, but his pace in the hills ultimately drained him. He pulled as close as eight seconds of the lead, but Meb was able to hold him off on the remaining downhill into the city. He gave a great deal of credit to the crowd for pulling him through that stretch. Ultimately, I think Keflezighi just ran a great race that exploited his competitors' sole weakness by forcing them to beat him either in the hills or after them, when he knew he would have the advantages – his experience on hills, or the crowds through to the finish. He quietly went after his best time and ran it. And I think his plan worked because none of the other elites took his early surge seriously due to the strength of the pack around them.