US marathoners back in running

Keflezighi and Hall are leading a revival

RYAN HALL Third in Boston in ’09 RYAN HALL
Third in Boston in ’09
By John Powers
Globe Staff / December 18, 2009

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The American Revolution in road racing began here three years ago on Patriots Day when three Yankee Doodle Dandies finished among the top five in the Boston Marathon. “The resurgence started in Boston,’’ says Meb Keflezighi, who was third that day ahead of countrymen Brian Sell and Alan Culpepper.

Next April, the Boston Athletic Association and sponsor John Hancock are hoping to produce a louder shot heard ’round the world and shed 26 years of foreign domination of the world’s most storied 26-miler by bringing in Keflezighi and Ryan Hall, the top two Americans, who’ll be competing alongside each other here for the first time in a bid to become the first domestic winner since Greg Meyer in 1983. “It seemed like the best of scenarios if we could get them running head to head,’’ says BAA executive director Guy Morse.

Hall was eager for another shot after finishing third here this year. “I’ve been looking forward to it since I crossed the finish line,’’ he says. And Keflezighi, whose victory last month in New York ended a 26-year shortfall there, was intrigued by the opportunity to stop yet another domestic drought as he did in the 2004 Olympics, where his silver was the first medal by a Yank since Frank Shorter’s silver in 1976. “It would be huge,’’ he says, “especially to do it back to back.’’

What brought the 34-year-old Keflezighi and 27-year-old Hall together was some typical understated persuasion by longtime Hancock race consultant Patrick Lynch and Hancock’s continued desire to assemble a world-class field a quarter of a century after it first offered prize money in what always had been an amateur race.

“We view marathoning as a global sport,’’ says Rob Friedman, the company’s assistant vice president for sponsorship and event marketing. “Our commitment is always to attract the strongest field we can and Meb and Ryan certainly fit that description.’’

While Hancock won’t announce the rest of the elite group until next year, it’s all but certain to include roughly a dozen top foreign racers, most of them from African nations such as Kenya and Ethiopia, which have all but owned the laurel wreath since 1988. That’s fine with the Americans, who have no interest in winning a discount laurel wreath.

“That’s what Boston and New York and London do,’’ says Keflezighi, who like Hall has run in all three marathons. “They assemble the field and set the stage for us. That’s the beauty of it.’’

What made Keflezighi’s New York victory, the first by a US male since Alberto Salazar in 1982, most significant was that it came against a loaded field - two-time world titlist Jaouad Gharib of Morocco, two-time champion Marilson Gomes dos Santos of Brazil, and four-time Boston winner Robert Cheruiyot.

By beating Cheruiyot by more than 40 seconds, Keflezighi put a star-spangled explanation point to what the Kenyan had acknowledged in 2006 - “Now, the Americans are coming.’’ “It was huge,’’ says Hall. “It broke down the wall that’s been there for a while. Now, it doesn’t seem as daunting a task.’’

Overlooked in the hubbub over Keflezighi’s triumph, his first at the distance, was the presence of five of his countrymen in the top 10 with Hall, Jorge Torres, Nick Arciniaga, Abdi Abdirahman, and Jason Lehmkuhle finishing 4-7-8-9-10. “That was really cool, but it was kind of weird,’’ says Hall. “It almost felt like being back in college.’’

Time was when the Boston race was that way. In 1979, there were eight Americans in top 10, including three of Bill Rodgers’s Greater Boston clubmates. The switch to prize money and the en masse arrival of African contenders broke up the intramural party, but the 3-4-5 finish three years ago signaled a turnaround.

What helped that year was the presence of two top guns in Keflezighi and Culpepper plus a cadre of Sell’s confreres from Hansons-Brooks in Michigan, who placed seven men in the top 22. “The crowd support was unbelievable,’’ said Culpepper. “People saying, ‘We believe in you.’ We haven’t heard that in a long time.’’

Keflezighi already had made his Olympic breakthrough by then, but he had been a solo act. Now, he has the comforts of friendly company in the lead pack. “Ryan and I do train together occasionally [in California],’’ he says. “To have him at my side and me at his side will be a big confidence boost. Alan and I always had that positive energy. A marathon is about helping and working together.’’

Keflezighi and Hall are kindred competitive spirits, both driven to the front from the jump. “Our running styles mix very well,’’ says Hall. “We like to be aggressive. We’ll definitely plan on helping each other out there.’’

They may have to help each other chill out along Boston’s down-up-down layout, which has seduced generations of contenders to miscalculate. Playing follow the leader at an unwise pace or leading too early and too long can be fatal. In 2006, Keflezighi battled it out with Kenya’s Ben Maiyo and Ethiopia’s Deriba Merga and ended up being swallowed by Cheruiyot, who went on to set a course record.

“We were really surging,’’ recalls Keflezighi, whose placement was the best by an American in more than two decades. “We were at 1:02:45 halfway. Then the hills came and everything changed. The marathon is about patience. Live and learn.’’

Hall, who led for most of the first 9 miles last year in record pace in his insistence on creating “an honest race,’’ was overtaken by his African pursuers coming out of Wellesley Hills and dropped to 11th before making a courageous comeback on the Boston flats.

“I’d jogged the course but that’s way different than racing,’’ he says. “Learning how to be patient early is important, but it’s hard to do. You want to try to find that fine line between going for it but at the same time holding back.’’

His Boston experience made him gunshy in New York, Hall concedes, and he ran conservatively enough that he took himself out of contention. “It just wasn’t me,’’ he says. “You have to run your own race. You have to be you out there.’’

Keflezighi made a bold bid in New York and it earned him $200,000 in prize money and bonuses, got him on Letterman and a place on the Statue of Liberty float alongside Miss America at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. “That was awesome, a great honor,’’ he says. “Waving your hands instead of your feet.’’

If he or Hall can win here on Patriots Day, they’ll get considerably more than the laurel wreath, medal, and bowl of beef stew that Meyer received in 1983, as well as a bit of immortality. “The US is the land of opportunity and anything is possible,’’ says Keflezighi. “We live here, and we can compete with the best.’’