A year after tragedy struck at the finish line, triumph was the storyline for distance legends Meb Keflezighi and Rita Jeptoo, who took the men's and women's divisions, respectively, to capture titles at the 2014 Boston Marathon.
Jeptoo, who won the 2013 event, set a new course record at 2 hours, 18 minutes, 57 seconds. She beat the previous record by nearly two full minutes, finishing ahead of second-place Bizunesh Deba (2:19:59) and third-place Mare Dibaba (2:20:35), both of whom also broke the previous record.
A 33-year-old Kenyan with numerous marathon titles under her belt, Jeptoo has won three at the Boston Marathon, her first coming in 2006.
Although there would be no record on the men's side for Keflezighi, his victory is no less noteworthy. The 38-year-old Eritrean-born American, by far the oldest participant in the field, became the first home country victor on the men's side in more than three decades, the longest drought in race history.
Taking on a series of young, up-and-coming runners—including Wilson Chebet, who charged hard to make the race close down to the last kilometer—Keflezighi paced the field throughout in a brilliant performance. Avoiding injury issues before the race and wildly changing his training regimen, the race was nothing like Keflezighi had ever endured prior.
The result saw him pumping his fist and kissing the Boston pavement as he made American marathon history. Keflezighi finished the race in 2:08:37, 11 seconds ahead of second-place Chebet. The two battled down to the very last stretch run, but Chebet just didn't have enough gas left in the tank to overcome the deficit. Frankline Chepkwony took third.
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Running for the lives lost and families affected by the senseless bombings at the 2013 race, there was no one in the field Monday who didn't have a sense of the moment. From the sides of the roads packed with thousands of citizens cheering on the runners to the participants themselves overcome with emotion, there was at once a sense of weightiness and encouragement throughout the day.
There were memories about last year's tragedy strung across all 26.2 miles. Countless pieces of merchandise featuring the "Boston Strong" slogan were seen, while the Boston police force ratcheted up security to unprecedented heights. As noted by Bob Salsberg and Michelle R. Smith of The Associated Press, bomb-sniffing dogs, roof-bound police officers and numerous street patrolmen were ensuring the safety of this year's runners.
"We're taking back our race," Boston Marathon race director Dave McGillivray said. "We're taking back the finish line."
And take back the finish line these participants did.
Keflezighi spoke about the atmosphere in the crowd and how it inspired his performance (via Nick Zaccardi of Olympic Talk):
“Boston Strong. Meb Strong,” he said on local TV. “I was going to give everything I had for the people. I have the victims on my bib number. I just said, just keep running, give me the energy. I said, ‘God, give me the strength to get there.’ It was coming close at the end, but at the same time, I’ve got to finish. Give me the spirit. Give me the energy.”
Scampering at a torrid pace from the outset, the 2014 race was defined by the quick starts of pre-race favorites. On the women's side, American Shalane Flanagan put together a sterling outlook for herself at the start, jumping out to an early lead and holding it throughout the half-marathon.
Flanagan, a Colorado native who also doubled as the United States' best chance at a win, heard arguably the loudest cheers of any elite-group participant. She is an Olympian making her second appearance at the Marathon, and more than anyone in her group seemed to have a real sense of the moment.
"I think something magical can happen for us," Flanagan told Jimmy Golen of the AP (via Boston.com). "It means so much to me, so much to my community and my family. I almost have to pretend that it's just another race, when deep down I know it isn't."
Even though Jeptoo was able to overcome Flanagan in the second half of the race, Kara Goucher pointed out the American's rapid speed to start helped force the field into a record-breaking afternoon:
Rita Jeptoo is a legend, but if she breaks the course record, she should thank @ShalaneFlanagan— Kara Goucher (@karagoucher) April 21, 2014
Flanagan would finish sixth. But her strategy would not only help Jeptoo nab a course record but also be mirrored on the men's side by Keflezighi—who didn't have an all-time great nipping at his heels.
Starting the race in something as close to a sprint as one can get in the marathon setting, Keflezighi opened up a massive lead over the field early. He stretched his advantage well past a minute at certain points, accelerating at times when others were conserving energy. That strategy probably would have backfired with one more mile, but once Keflezighi opened a large enough lead, he smartly began to decelerate and conserve just enough energy to take his second major marathon (he won the 2009 New York City Marathon).
While the race ultimately goes down in the record books crediting Keflezighi and Jeptoo for their victories, the memories foraged Monday are far more important than the result. This wasn't an event designed exclusively to honor who finished first but to honor those who didn't get to finish at all last year—and those hundreds of lives that were fundamentally altered by the events that transpired.
Later in the day, multiple non-competing runners will cross that same finish line, only their triumphs will be more personal than professional.
"I can't imagine the number of emotions that are going to be there," Katie O'Donnell, a participant whose race was stopped a mile short of the finish line in 2013, told Salsberg and Smith of the AP. "I think I'm going to start crying at the starting line, and I'm not sure I'll stop until I cross the finish line."
Keflezighi and Jeptoo may have won, but the Boston Marathon has always been more about the sense of community and togetherness than a podium. Monday's race begins the process of taking that back.
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