On a gorgeous Patriots’ Day in New England on April 21, 2014, Bostonians reclaimed their marathon from terrorists who interrupted last year’s celebration with murder and mayhem.
In the 118th running of the world’s most famous race, 239 years after American patriot Paul Revere made his famous midnight ride to warn his fellow colonists of the threat of British forces at Concord and Lexington – the first two battles of the Revolutionary War in 1775 – an American nightmare became an American dream.
Meb Keflezighi, a 38-year-old immigrant, became the first American man to win the famed Boston Marathon in 31 years. How appropriate. His triumph in two hours, eight minutes, 37 seconds (2:08:37) came a year after two bombs exploded near the finish line on Boylston Street – killing three people, wounding 264 others and changing the Boston Marathon forever.
“When the bombs exploded, every day since then I’ve wanted to come back and win it,” the four-time NCAA champion from UCLA and Olympic Games silver medalist told reporters. “I kept thinking, Boston strong, Boston strong.”
There is nothing on the sidewalk at 671 Boylston Street in front of Marathon Sports – maybe 50 feet from the marathon finish line – to mark the spot where the first bomb exploded last year. Bostonians are looking – and running – forward, not backward, while still honoring and remembering last year’s victims.
The marathon and Patriots’ Day are symbols of American freedom, and Bostonians and Americans refuse to cower to terrorism. In the years since 1973, when a running boom hit the U.S. after Frank Shorter’s victory in the 1972 Olympic Games marathon, the Boston Marathon evolved from quaint and charming to corporate and commercial.
But Monday it made a giant step back to its original spirit of people and place and competition – qualities that made it special at its beginning in 1897, inspired by the marathon at the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896.
Running with Keflezighi and the other 35,753 entries this year was Dr. Koy Roberts (’93), of the DFW suburb of Double Oak, Texas, 43-year-old graduate of Abilene Christian University, University of North Texas and Abilene High School. It was his eighth marathon but first Boston after qualifying with 3:11 last July in Seattle.
It was impossible among the hundreds of thousands of people and increased security that lined the course for his two children – 11-year-old Reese and 7-year-old Kash – and me to get to the finish line. People began lining the course five hours before the finish, and by noon they were 10 deep in some places.
We waited in nearby Boston Public Garden – near the statue of George Washington – for Koy to finish in 3:13. He placed 4,890th in the top 14 percent of the entries, and his time qualifies him for next year.
The field was expanded by 9,000 this year from 26,839 last year to accommodate people who were denied finishing last year (police stopped runners still on the route when the bombs exploded) and hundreds of people running to raise money for charities. The 102 members of Team MR8, running to honor last year’s youngest victim, 8-year-old Martin Richard, reportedly raised more than $1 million.
It was the second largest Boston field ever after only the 100th running of the Boston Marathon in 1996 when 38,708 entered.
Koy went through the first half in 1:32+, but his 5k splits gradually became slower in the second half from a low of 21:24 to a high of 25:09 as the hills – including Heartbreak Hill, the fourth in a series of four hills in Newton – and the warm weather began to take their toll.
“Heartbreak Hill was heartbreaking,” Koy told his inquisitive first-grade son Kash.
Temperatures were in the 60s with bright sunshine. And although there are trees on the course, there was no shade because leaves have yet to appear after the New England winter. Koy’s second half was 1:40+.
“People were chanting ‘Boston strong, Boston strong,’ ” Koy said. “The people were so loud, and in the last couple of miles it was a deafening roar. The people were crazy. They were going ‘bananas.’ The National Guard was trying to hold them back. They were trying to get to us, give us food and Power Bars, and ‘high five’ us.”
“It was hard not to smile and get pumped with the crowds going bonkers,” Koy added.
He is not the first person in his family to run Boston. His wife, Bj (Conner ’96), ran here in 2010.
My ACU track and field jacket and cap did attract some notice. Upon arrival Friday at Logan Airport we met the husband of Carmel Pace of Rule, Texas, a former Wichita State student-athlete returning to Boston after she was denied a chance to finish last year in her fourth trip here.
And at the pre-race pasta party, a gentleman from Independence, Kansas, sitting next to me, simply said, “Abilene Christian University. Bobby Morrow.” He’s a veteran of 34 Boston Marathons, and we had an enjoyable conversation about track and field.
An estimated one million people lined the course Monday. And hours after Keflezighi finished, hundreds of people were still at the finish line near the John Hancock Tower in Copley Square in this historic city cheering the final finishers.
“This is a take-back-our-marathon kind of marathon,” Wellesley College student Molly Tyler told Sports Illustrated. “It’s just going to be huge. So loud.”
Indeed, it was. Huge and loud. And patriotic and exhausting and exhilarating.