Californian Meb Keflezighi became the first American since 1983 to win the men’s division of the Boston Marathon, one year after a bombing there killed three people and left more than 260 injured.
After 2 hours 8 minutes 37 seconds of hard running, Keflezighi, who will be celebrating his 39th birthday in two weeks, crossed the finish line at Boylston Street with his arms spread nearly as wide as the finish tape. The cheering crowd got a clear view of his bib which read, simply, “Meb.”
“This is probably the most meaningful victory for an American because of what happened last year,” he said. “I’m almost 39. I just ran a personal best. I just won the Boston Marathon. I feel blessed.”
Keflezighi came to the United States at age 12 after his family, which includes 11 children, left the African nation of Eritrea to escape a life of poverty and a violent war with Ethiopia. When the family settled in San Diego, he spoke no English and had never raced a mile, says USA Today.
Due to his grades and athletic skills he earned a full scholarship to UCLA, and became a U.S. citizen in 1998 and ran for his country in three Olympics, winning a silver medal in 2004. At age 34, Keflezighi won the 2009 New York City Marathon, the first American to do so in 27 years.
“I’ve been a very fortunate person, from humble beginnings, from war-torn Eritrea, came as a refugee and the United States gave me hope,” he said. He now lives in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., with his wife and three daughters.
In the women’s race, Rita Jeptoo of Kenya defended her 2013 victory with a flawless race. Jeptoo slammed the door on the field with a 4:49 mile in the 24th mile, a kick that put nearly 30 seconds between her and the field. Her 2:18:57 beat the course record by almost two full minutes. Her performance was the eighth fastest women’s marathon ever recorded on any course.
“For me, I came to run in Boston again and to help support Boston [for] what happened last year,” Jeptoo said afterward. “I was happy for the win I got.”
President Obama took to Twitter to congratulate Keflezighi, and Shalane Flanagan of Marblehead, Mass., whose seventh-place finish was the highest for a U.S. woman. Obama thanked both runners “for making America proud!”
“All of today’s runners showed the world the meaning of #BostonStrong,” Obama tweeted.
Flanagan, 32, who led the elite women’s race through the first 20 miles, crossed the finish line with tears in her eyes, later saying, “I love Boston so much. I really wanted to win for my city.”
Another American, Tatyana McFadden, celebrated her 25th birthday Monday by winning the women’s wheelchair race for the second straight year. She was timed in in 1 hour, 35 minutes, 6 seconds.
Each winner receives $150,000, but Keflezighi said that the victory was worth far more than the amount written on the congratulatory check.
“My career is fulfilled,” he said. “Since 2008, it’s been frosting on the cake. It’s just getting better and better.”