BOSTON -- The footrace became a footrace again. Meb Keflezighi made it so. Just when you wondered if the Boston Marathon ever could go back to what it once was -- a grand athletic event, not a light in the window, not a prayer, not a memorial service to remember the havoc and sorrow that took place one year ago -- there he was.
He was five and a half feet tall, taking charge. He was two weeks short of 39, ancient for his sport, going out fast and never slowing down. He was American (American!), winning the whole damn thing. With the first names of the four victims from the bombings and bloody aftermath of 2013 written in the four corners of his blue and yellow runner's bib, Martin and Krysti and Lingzi and Sean, with the echoes of the emotional build-up for the race rattling around inside, with the words "Boston Strong, America Strong, Meb Strong," pushing him forward in his head, Mr. Mebrahtom Keflezighi went wire to wire and restored order.
"Today was not just about me," he said Monday after becoming the first American male in 31 years to win this race in a time of 2 hours, 8 minutes, 37 seconds. "This was Boston Strong. I did it for the people. God gave me the energy to persevere and win it. I am blessed to be an American and this is beautiful, really beautiful to do it for Boston. This place is the heartbeat of the country's running history. It's a gift, an honor, to be part of this."
No one expected this. No one.
With the field filled beyond capacity with nearly 36,000 runners, with helicopters on the course and swat team units and bag checks at the Boylston Street finish and with National Guardsmen in desert-camo fatigues stationed every 100 yards along Heartbreak Hill, the story was supposed to be about the ordinary runners. This was a race of statements. Every runner in the race had a cause, a fire, working inside, a reason for being on the roads from Hopkinton to Boston.
No one paid much attention to the real race at all. There were Kenyans, for sure, in the both the men's and women's fields, those light and swift visitors who dominate distance running around the world. There were Ethiopians, including last year's male winner, Lelisa Desisa Benti, a sweet spirit who returned his medal to the city of Boston after the bombings simply out of sadness. Everyone else pretty much did not count. The winner of the race certainly would come from the Kenyans or the Ethiopians. It always did.
In the afterthought notes, stuck on the back pages of the newspapers, the fact was mentioned that the three United States marathon runners in the 2012 Olympics in London were in the field, Meb and Ryan Hall and Abdi Abdirahman, but not many people noticed. American Olympians have run Boston often in the past with bad results.
Meb was the most decorated runner of the group, a silver medalist in the 2004 Olympics, a winner of the New York marathon in 2009, a strong and surprising fourth in 2012 in London. He also had finished third in Boston in 2006 and fifth in 2010. A year ago, he had been a spectator, sitting in the stands at the finish line. He left his seat only five minutes before the first bomb exploded, cried with his brother Merhawi, his manager, at the nearby Copley Plaza in the aftermath.
The bombs were the reason he was back as a runner this time. The bombs and the Red Sox. The bombs had given him the inclination to run. The sight of the Red Sox winning the World Series on television last October gave him inspiration.
"It was my dream to win just like the Red Sox did," he said. "To try to do the same thing for the people."
Born in Eritrea in the midst of the country's struggle for independence from Ethiopia, he was one of 10 kids. His father brought the family first to Italy, then to San Diego. Keflezighi was 12 years old when he made that move. Told of the importance of education by his father, he responded to a challenge from one of his seventh grade teachers who said he would award an A to the student in class who ran the fastest mile. Keflezighi ran the mile in five minutes, 20 seconds. He received the A and a new life in the process.
A standout runner at UCLA, he has put together a solid and surprising career. Written off at assorted stops, without a shoe contract three years ago, he has come back with another good result and then another. To add Boston to that pile -- he said he shortened his runs in preparation to preserve his almost 39-year-old body -- was a final exclamation point.
"As an athlete you have dreams and today is where the dream and reality meet," he said. "I was crying at the end. This is probably the most meaningful victory for an American, just because of what happened. It's Patriots Day."
He kneeled down and kissed the ground three times when he crossed the finish line. He kissed his wife, Yordanos. He radiated happiness, which he easily shared. He hugged Greg Meyer, the last American to win the race in 1983. He hugged medical staff. He hugged everyone.
With a name that is hard to pronounce using the standard North American tongue -- a 'z' in there in the middle, a "ghi" in there, too -- he is the perfect antidote to the two characters with their hard-to-pronounce names who allegedly caused all of the destruction a year ago. His is the face of what the American immigration experience can be, the result of what happens when people love their new country and receive love in return. His is the face to remember for the Boston Marathon.
Meb Keflezighi. The man who restored order. On a day for inspirational stories, his story was the most inspirational of all.
Who'd have figured that?