By Eric Wilbur, Boston.com Staff
The names were written on his bib.
Martin Richard. Sean Collier. Krystle Campbell. Lu Lingzi.
The front of the entry simply read, “Meb,” but the other four names etched on the runner’s attire served as inspiration for Meb Keflezighi, the first American runner to win the Boston Marathon since 1983 with a time of 2:08:37. The four lives lost in the wake of last year’s Boston Marathon bombings crossed the finish line with him, pushing him, helping break a 31-year drought for US runners in a script few would have foreseen.
“They helped me carry through,” Keflezighi said.
If last year’s events served as inspiration for Keflezighi, who ran a personal best time on Monday, then the San Diego native, who moved to the US when he was 12, can easily return the favor for aging runners across the country. At age 38 - going on 39 in two weeks - Keflezighi is the oldest winner of the country’s oldest marathon since 1930 when 40-year old Clarence deMar took the top prize. He went seven years without a shoe sponsor (Sketchers, of all companies, stepped in), a stretch that might have some elite runners contemplating retirement. Instead, Keflezighi went out and won the 2009 New York City Marathon - the first American to do so in 27 years - wrote an autobiography, “Run to Overcome,” and on Monday, used that title to make a statement in Boston.
“That’s what we did today; run to overcome from last year,” he said. "Sketchers gave me the opportunity to be the best that I can. If it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t be on this podium.
“Congratulations, Boston. Boston strong, America strong, and worldwide, thank you for having this opportunity to come back from what a year ago was a disaster to this patriotic day. It couldn’t happen at a better time to win for the United States.”
Monday’s Boston Marathon was the second time in the past six months that the finish line has been the symbol of pride and strength in the month’s following last April’s bombings. When the Red Sox won the World Series, the celebratory parade made sure it made a stop at the finish line, in front of Marathon Sports and Forum, where tragedy interrupted an annual tradition. There, the World Series trophy was placed, a Red Sox “617” jersey draped over it. That one was for Boston.
“When the Red Sox won and put it on the finish line, I wanted to do that for the runners,” Keflezighi said. “That was my goal and just beyond my dreams.”
Keflezighi led the way for most of the race, which seems to go against the vibe he’d left in previous competitions.
“I was comfortable up front,” he said. “People think I’m come from behind, but I’m also a front-runner. I just kept pushing the pace, and ‘come and catch us.’ It got close at the end, but at the same time, I just kept thinking ‘Boston strong, Boston strong. Live strong, live strong. Leave everything you have.’”
Keflezighi said he met the Richard family at a charity foundation race, and came away inspired. The victims have left a lasting impression on him, in same way the crowds did during Monday’s race, chanting “Meb, Meb,” along with raucous shouts of “USA” when the sidelines understood what was happening. When Keflezighi turned onto Boylston Street, he was aiming to become the first American winner since 1983, a year when 111 Huntington Ave. wasn’t even on a sketch artist’s design board. Nineteen years later, it joined the Prudential Center and the Hancock Tower as familiar skyline features along the stretch run. Thirty-one years later, a US runner took the Boston Marathon.
“The energy was just phenomenal,” Keflezighi said. ”To have my name on the front is just kind of cool.
“I’m almost 39, I just ran a personal best and just won the Boston Marathon. Couldn’t happen at a better time and I’m blessed.”
Keflezighi’s bib surely wasn’t the only one to have the victims' names written on it. They ran with thousands of runners on Monday, elite and otherwise.
But 2014 deserved a memorable Boston Marathon after last year. Boy, did Boston get it.