Meb Keflezighi celebrates after winning the 118th Boston Marathon on April 21, 2014 in Boston.
BOSTON -- With his hands raised above his head and his mouth releasing a primal scream on Boylston Street Monday morning, Mebrahtom Keflezighi — known to fans simply as Meb — reclaimed what is perhaps the most famous finish line in marathon history for Bostonians and Americans alike.
Just one year after two bombs were detonated, killing three people and injuring 264 others at the finish line, the 38-year-old Olympian became the first American man to win the Boston Marathon since 1983.
“It was a phenomenal day, it was not just about me, it was about Boston Strong,” Keflezighi said in a television interview shortly after he hugged the last U.S. man to win the oldest annual marathon, Greg Meyer.
Keflezighi clocked a time of 2 hours, 8 minutes and 27 seconds under perfect weather conditions while wearing the names of the three people who died in the 2013 race on his bib.
A year ago, Keflezighi, the 2004 Olympic silver medalist and 2009 New York City Marathon champ shed tears of a different kind after the race. Sidelined with an injury, he spent four hours at the finish line before leaving just before the blast for a scheduled television appearance.
“I have an 8-year-old daughter,” he said. “That could have been her.”
This year, Keflezighi’s victory will be one of the most indelible images of the race that is annually ran on Patriots’ Day. But it didn’t come easily. In the final sprint down Boylston Street, the crowd thundered as Keflezighi looked over his shoulder several times before holding off Kenyans Wilson Chebet (2:08.48) and Franklin Chepkwony (2:08.50) for good.
“It got close at the end, but at the same time I just kept thinking, ‘Boston Strong, Boston Strong, Meb Strong, Meb Strong,’” he said at the post-race news conference. “Give it everything you have, and if you get beat that’s fine, but at the same time I wanted to be able to finish strong.
“Looking back is not a bad thing,” he added. “It can save you a win. Toward the end, I’ll be honest I was a little bit nervous. (Chebet) was coming after me. But at the same token, I knew he had to work hard to catch up to me.”
Thirteen American men finished in the Top 25, including seventh- and eighth-place finishes for Nicholas Arciniaga of Flagstaff, Ariz., (2:11:47) and Jeffrey Eggleston of Boulder, Colo., (2:11:57). Ryan Hall, who joined Keflezighi on the 2012 U.S. Olympic marathon team, finished 20th in 2:17:50.
In the wheelchair races, Tatyana McFadden defended her women’s championship in 1:35:06 — on her 25th birthday, no less. The summer and winter Paralympic star made history in 2013 when she became the first athlete to win the marathon grand slam: Boston, Chicago, London and New York City. After winning London in record-setting time last week, she is now halfway to a repeat.
Just last month, McFadden competed at the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games and earned a silver medal in the women’s 1-kilometer sprint sitting event.
On the women’s side, Olympian Shalane Flanagan put in another strong bid to become the first American woman to win the race since Lisa Rainsberger in 1985. The Marblehead, Mass., native and the 2008 Olympic bronze medalist in the 10,000-meter distance, led the race beyond the halfway point but was overtaken by eventual champ Rita Jeptoo (2:18:57) of Kenya just before the infamous Heartbreak Hill.
Jeptoo, a three-time Boston champion, credited Flanagan for setting the early pace that led to her setting a course record on Monday. Ethiopia’s Buzunesh Deba finished second in 2:19:59, also under the old course record of 2:20:43, set by fellow Kenyan Margaret Okayo in 2002. Mare Dibaba (2:20:35) was third. Flanagan (2:22:02) was the top U.S. finisher at seventh place, while fellow U.S. Olympian Desiree Linden (formerly Davila) of Rochester Hills, Mich., finished 10th with a time of 2:23:54.
Flanagan, who signed up for the 2014 race two days after the 2013 bombing, bettered her personal best by about three minutes. The three-time Olympian clocked a time of 2:27:08 to finish fourth in Boston last year.
“I wanted to send a message that I was not afraid to come back here and I wanted to be part of this day,” said Flanagan, who grew up watching her parents run the course and traveled from her current home in Portland, Ore., six times in the last six months to train on the Boston course.
“It does mean a lot to me that my city is proud of me. I’m proud of how I ran. I didn’t wish it was easier; I just wish I was better. It was a heartfelt effort today.”
Flanagan almost broke down in tears several times during her news conference.
“I have fallen in love with this course; I had so much fun preparing for this race,” she said. “I wanted to use it as an advantage. That’s why I attacked the course today. I wanted to give it everything I had. I knew every little divot in the road. I knew where every Dunkin’ Donuts was, every Wendy’s.
“I had some great memories on this course.”
Flanagan said she managed to check her emotions until the home stretch when she said she felt like her “insides were shaking” because the crowd was so loud.
“Within the last mile or two miles I felt like I was hyperventilating because I felt so much love on the course, and it’s a moment I will treasure forever,” she said before saying she will keep trying Boston until she wins. “I look up to people like Meb, who has had a really lengthy career. He’s taken a few swings at it before he got it right.
“Seventh and 2:22:02 is not what I dreamed of, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.”
After an emotional finish, Keflezighi, who turns 39 next month, made his way to the medical tent near the finish line to thank the first responders after the bombings a year ago for all their efforts. He said they thanked him back.
“The scenery there was different last year than it is right now,” he said. “If it wasn’t for those people who came to help when the bomb exploded … I mean, I wanted to say thank you to them. I’m just beyond my dream right now to have this trophy here and the wreath. As an athlete, you have dreams and today is where the dream and reality meet.”
Justin A. Rice is a Boston-based freelance writer who covers sports and local news. He has been a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org since 2010 on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.