Published November 02, 2009
NEW YORK – Meb Keflezighi wrote a letter to Alberto Salazar 11 years ago explaining how American distance runners could again find success.
Salazar was the last U.S. man to win the New York City Marathon, a distinction he held until Keflezighi proved himself right Sunday. Keflezighi broke a 27-year drought with his victory, one of six American men in the top 10.
"Today was a huge day," said Keflezighi, who finished in 2 hours, 9 minutes, 15 seconds. "You visualize, you visualize, but when reality hits, it hits home, and it's pretty sweet."
Derartu Tulu of Ethiopia was the women's winner on a day when a record field of nearly 44,000 started the 40th edition of this race. Two-time defending champion Paula Radcliffe fell back to fourth, hobbled by tendinitis behind her left knee.
Keflezighi wrote the letter in 1998 to Salazar, who worked with Nike, arguing that for U.S. distance running to thrive, athletes needed the funding to allow them to train full-time.
That same year, Keflezighi became an American citizen. He was born in the East African nation of Eritrea, growing up in a hut with no electricity. Soldiers would surround his village, looking for boys 12 and older to drag off to war.
When he was 10, his family moved to Italy; two years later, they came to the United States. Keflezighi began running in junior high in San Diego, then went on to star at UCLA.
"Definitely today wearing that USA jersey got the crowd going," he said. "Definitely wore it with big honor and pride."
Keflezighi won silver at the 2004 Olympics, the first American man to medal since 1976. The U.S. Olympic trials for Beijing were held in New York two years ago, a day that was shaping up as a triumphant symbol of the American resurgence that Keflezighi helped inspire.
He left with an aching hip and, far worse, an aching heart. Close friend Ryan Shay collapsed and died during the race.
Keflezighi hobbled to eighth at the trials, then later found out he had a stress fracture in his hip. Long days of rehab followed, and he didn't feel 100 percent until early this year.
Tulu had struggled with her weight and endurance after the birth of her second daughter three years ago. But when she ran well at a half-marathon in Philadelphia on Sept. 20, the 37-year-old decided to enter New York.
Tulu's breakthrough victory came 17 years ago at the Barcelona Olympics, when she won the 10,000 meters to become the first black African woman to capture a gold medal. She took gold again in 2000, then won her only previous major marathon title in London the following year.
Asked about the significance of Sunday's win, Tulu said she plans to compete at the London Olympics in 2012 when she is 40.
"I hope to be able to bring another victory for my country," she said, "so I hope you will be there to ask me the same question."
She needs look no further than Ludmila Petrova for proof she can still succeed at that age. The 41-year-old Russian was the runner-up for the second straight year, after Tulu pulled away in the final mile. Christelle Daunay of France was third.
Tulu won in 2:28:52, as 14 mph winds slowed the runners on a cool day.
Radcliffe said she felt a twinge behind her left knee two weeks ago as she was completing her training for the marathon. She was hoping the tendinitis wouldn't bother her Sunday but started feeling pain at the 11-mile mark.
She still thought she had a chance when the other runners in the lead pack didn't push the pace, but she couldn't keep up when they finally pulled away in the 22nd mile.
"The really frustrating thing is I don't even feel tired now," she said, "but my legs couldn't go any quicker."
Tulu and Radcliffe have had plenty of duels over the years on the track and in cross country. But Tulu had never been able to keep up very long with the Brit in any marathon.
"I was disappointed to see her falling back and struggling," Tulu said. "I actually tried to encourage her to get her to keep up with us. At some point it was clear that she was not able to do so, and I'm actually disappointed that she was not able to run that well."
The 34-year-old Keflezighi pulled away from Robert Cheruiyot of Kenya in the 23rd mile to beat the four-time Boston Marathon champ by 41 seconds. His time of 2:09:15 was a personal best.
Morocco's Jaouad Gharib finished third, and Ryan Hall, who won the trials in New York two years ago, was fourth. The event doubled as the U.S. men's championship, and the six Americans in the top 10 was the most since 1979.
Defending champion Marilson Gomes dos Santos of Brazil did not finish.
Keflezighi made his marathon debut in New York in 2002, finishing ninth. He was second in 2004 and third in 2005. After all that has happened to him in this city, where better to earn his first major marathon victory?
When he ran by the spot where Shay collapsed, Keflezighi crossed himself.
"To get the second chance — you know, unfortunately Ryan is not here," he said. "But injuries are something that you recover from. A lot of things you can recover from in life."