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Hearts were racing again

Boston's course took good turns

There hadn't been a Patriots Day buzz like that in more than two decades. Meb Keflezighi and Alan Culpepper were heading into the Newton hills, in contention and wearing Uncle Sam's colors, and their countrymen along the road were going wild. ''The crowd was phenomenal," said Keflezighi, after he'd finished third in the 110th Boston Marathon. '' 'Go U-S-A' and 'Go Meb.' The chanting like that . . ."

This was the day Boston came alive again and got back in the hardtop game. What this ancient footrace needed was a home team to root for and a fast race to get people talking about checkpoints and splits again. It got both, with three Americans in the top five and Kenya's Robert Cheruiyot (2:07:14) taking down a course record that had stood for a dozen years.

What had siphoned the fizz out of the event over the past decade was the absence of a Bill Rodgers or an Alberto Salazar or a Greg Meyer to wave a flag at, and a succession of winners crossing the line in 2:09 and 2:10. That changed Monday, along with a myth nearly as old as Heartbreak Hill -- that you can't run a good time in Boston.

If Cheruiyot had been pushed for the final few miles, he almost certainly would have been in the 2:06s. In Boston? Unheard of?

''It is not a fast course," Cheruiyot said yesterday, ''but if you put something in mind, it is fast."

If you did run fast here, everybody said, you risked crippling yourself. ''Boston's kind of notorious for ending careers," observed Brian Sell, the US world teamer, after making his debut here. Sell, who finished fourth, ran 2:10:55, bettering his personal best by nearly 2 1/2 minutes. He was still walking yesterday, if a bit stiffly, as was Keflezighi, whose 2:09:56 was by far the best American time here since 1994, when Bob Kempainen (2:08:47) had a strong tailwind pushing him.

With Culpepper's fifth-place effort of 2:11:02, it was the first time that three US runners went that fast since the top five (Meyer, Ron Tabb, Benji Durden, Edward Mendoza, and Chris Bunyan) all broke 2:11 in 1983.

''Now, the Americans are coming," said Cheruiyot, who didn't have any within seven minutes of him when he won here three years ago. ''I see these guys and I say, oooh, very strong."

The breakthrough happened because the Boston Athletic Association and sponsor John Hancock made it happen. They brought in Keflezighi, the Olympic runner-up who'd run twice in New York but never here. ''For a long time people would ask me, 'Are you a marathon runner? Have you done Boston?' " Keflezighi said.

They brought back Culpepper, who'd been fourth here a year ago in the best domestic showing in 18 years. And they brought in Sell and his hungry Hansons-Brooks teammates (the Michigan version of the old Greater Boston Track Club), who placed seven finishers among the top 22.

''Another American Revolution has begun," BAA executive director Guy Morse declared yesterday. ''It began here in Boston."

If so, it happened just in time, as the race was on the verge of slipping behind the global curve again.

No other 26-miler has Boston's history or its lore or its charm, but in the running world, London and New York and Chicago have more allure. Much of it is cash (London throws everything but the crown jewels at its top people) or the promise of a world record (Chicago is flatter than a 15th-century globe) or a World's Second Home stage (New York).

What Boston has is something that none of its rivals ever will: It was here before all of them. In a city that tends to equate longevity with primacy, that once was considered to be enough. It wasn't by the mid 1980s, when the organizers concluded that they had to offer prize money to keep the race from becoming a holiday fun run for the 2:20 crowd.

And now that Boston is one of the five races in the new World Marathon Majors Series, which is offering a $1 million jackpot to the top runners over a two-year span, it needed to find a way to stay abreast of its richer, faster, brassier brethren.

This was a race, however rich in legend, that was flatlining. It wasn't just that the Kenyans were winning every year, it's that they'd had the race in a hammerlock.

In 2002, their men took six of the top seven places. In 2003, it was eight of the top nine; in 2004, six of the top seven again. Move the Newton hills to Nairobi, the joke went, and you could save a fortune on airfare.

Even though the Kenyans finished 1-2 again Monday, the afternoon had a dramatically different flavor. Benjamin Maiyo's headlong dash through Natick and Wellesley had people double-checking their watches. More than two minutes under the course record at midway? Yanks up front?

''The crowd support was unbelievable," Culpepper marveled. ''People saying, 'We believe in you.' We haven't had that for a long time."

Not for a couple of decades. And there hadn't been a course record for a dozen years. On Monday, we had homegrown guys finishing 3-4-5-7-10-11 and the victor going 2:07:14. Those were two shots heard 'round the world.

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