Franklin Chepkwony

"Thank you, Meb"

Meb Keflezghi’s victory Monday at the Boston Marathon, so poignant, so soulful, proved an epic reminder of why sports matter. He is the first American man to win the race since 1983.

Keflezighi, who turns 39 in a couple weeks, is the oldest Boston Marathon winner since at least 1930.

Meb Keflezighi celebrates after winning the Boston Marathon // photo Getty Images

His win, in 2:08.37, marked a soaring triumph of the human spirit — a year after the bombings that killed three people and wounded hundreds. Keflezighi ran with the names of the dead — a fourth, a police officer killed in the manhunt that ensued after the bombings — written on his bib, which read, simply, “Meb.”

Officials estimated that perhaps a million people turned out for the 2014 Boston Marathon, to cheer on the 36,000 runners, 9,000 more than usual.

To say that Keflezighi was not expected to win would be an understatement. After all, he had finished only 23rd at last year’s New York Marathon. Fifteen guys had faster personal-best times than Keflezighi going into Boston 2014.

Keflezighi is, of course, the 2004 Olympic silver medalist and the 2009 New York marathon champ. But he is no longer running in Nikes, having lost that sponsorship  — thought to be too old and too slow. Instead, he was kicking Monday in red-and-silver flyers from Skechers, the Manhattan Beach, California-based company better known for skateboard shoes.

Too old and too slow proved tactically brilliant Monday.

He went out in a two-man pack — everybody else let them go — with Josphat Boit. At Mile 16, Keflezighi made his move, running that split in 4:39, opening up a big gap. He said afterward he had to fight off a stomach bug about Mile 22. He then found the strength to keep ahead of Kenyans Wilson Chebet, the two-time Amsterdam Marathon champion, and Franklin Chepkwony, the 2012 Zurich Marathon winner.

Chebet finished in 2:08.48, Chepkwony two seconds behind that.

“Going through the last two miles, it was a challenge, it was difficult,” Keflezighi said at a news conference, adding a moment later, “Sometimes you just have to run and dig deep.”

The debate can begin now about where Keflezighi stands now in the ranks of American marathoners. Frank Shorter? Bill Rodgers? Alberto Salazar?

Keflezighi's 2004 silver made him the first U.S. man to win an Olympic marathon medal since Shorter, who won gold in 1972 and silver in 1976.  When Keflezighi won in New York in 2009? That made him the first U.S. man to win there since 1982.

For sure, this much  has to be acknowledged: Keflezighi has had to compete in an era when the East Africans have been in their ascendancy. What he has done — Olympic silver, New York and, now, Boston, and Boston in 2014 with all the symbolism — deserves appropriate recognition, and especially from anyone with any connection to the hardest thing that will forever define the distinct culture that is the marathon:

Putting on your shoes — red-and-silver, whatever — and stepping out the door.

Too old, too slow, can't do it -- all of that got beat back Monday. That is the essence of the marathon. And, in a very real way, it is the essence, too, of sports.

It's why he ran, and so many of thousands of others did, too.

“What he has accomplished should be a source of pride for all Americans,” Max Siegel, the chief executive officer of USA Track & Field, said in a statement that captured the moment.

“Since 2004, Meb has set the standard for what American marathoners can achieve. With everything that was at stake at the 2014 Boston Marathon, this must rank as one of the greatest American marathon performances in history.

“Thank you, Meb.”