Meb Keflezighi’s unexpected victory in the 2014 Boston Marathon was one of the great moments in the history of the race. Understandably, most of the accounts of his race have been eloquent about Meb’s personal history, his courage in the face of adversity, and his emotional connection to the race and the fans. It truly is an inspiring story and will make a great movie someday.
But how on earth did he do it? How did a 38-year-old runner with a personal best of 2:09:05 and a shoe contract from Skechers beat the deepest field of marathoners ever assembled to run at Boston? How did a lifetime 2:09 guy beat a field that included seven men who had run under 2:05:30, eleven men who had run under 2:08? How is that even possible?
Inspiration and courage played a huge part, but here are five other thoughts about how Meb was able to pull off one of the greatest upsets in Boston history.
1. Boston is not Dubai
Boston is not a flat course like Dubai, Chicago, or Rotterdam. The difference between the top runners and Meb was exaggerated because Meb has run few races on fast, flat courses. Instead, his resume is replete with high finishes in championship races on tougher courses with no official pacemakers.
2. He wasn’t considered a threat to win
Neither I nor anyone I know picked Meb to win. Maybe in the back of my mind I thought he’d run a conservative race and finish in the top five, but win? No way.
Apparently, that’s what the field of sub-2:06 guys thought, as well. Shortly after seven miles and almost by accident, he and Josephat Boit started drifting ahead of the main pack. There was no gauntlet. It wasn’t even a serious move, just a couple of guys with no chance to win expending extra energy. It never occurred to the fast guys in the pack to change their rhythm. They were too busy watching each other and biding their time waiting for the real racing to begin ten miles later. There was no need to worry about a couple of Americans who had never broken 2:09.
3. On real courses, running the course matters
Meb ran the Boston course like he had surveyed every turn, every rise and fall, every pothole in the road. He ran the tangents like every step mattered. Even as he was pulling away, he was scrupulous in using his energy in the most efficient way possible.
If you look at Meb’s splits, he runs the downhills hard (4:37 mile from 15 to 16 down into Newton Lower Falls), and the uphills steady, but not fast (5:12 mile from 20 to 21 up Heartbreak Hill).
In his remarks after the race, Meb mentioned running Boston like it was a cross country course. Meb had read and re-read Bill Rodgers book Marathon Man, and had absorbed the lesson that one must respect the course and run it intelligently.
Meanwhile, the fast guys in the main pack were jogging through the first two-thirds of the course, paying little attention to the tangents and doing nothing to calibrate their pace to the opportunities given by the course.
4. He didn’t panic
When the pack finally kicked it into high gear with eight miles to go, Meb had built a lead of 1:21. With the quality of runners chasing him, that lead was definitely not safe. Even now, I wonder if a runner like Chebet (PR 2:05:27) or one of the other superb distance men had used a more patient, more team-oriented strategy, they could have run Meb down. After all, they had eight miles to do it.
But there was a little bit of panic now, and they had to take chances. Chebet’s splits from 30k to 40k tell the story. He ran 14:57 (4:49 pace) from 30k to 35k, going UP two of the toughest of the Newton Hills. He then ran 14:29 (4:40 pace) for the next 5k. By contrast, Meb ran 15:27 from 30k to 35k, and 15:10 from 35k to 40k. He calibrated his effort to the contours of the course, making more efficient use of his capabilities.
Chebet got within eight seconds with 2k to go. It had been a brave effort, but running the undulating hills so hard had cost him dearly. Watching on the live stream, I thought sure a pass was imminent, but Chebet was cooked and Meb had saved something (or found something), and Chebet never got closer.
5. Being faster is not the same as being better
No marathon is easy. These days, when there are dozens of marathoners running times that would have been unthinkable a few years ago, and predictions abound for new world bests, it’s easy to forget that marathons are designed to be a test of more than speed. In particular, a marathon race is a test of commitment.
There were a lot of faster guys in the race on Monday. They were strong, accomplished runners with an abundance of talent and lots of motivation to do well. On a normal day, in a normal race, you’d think that such talent and such motivation would be enough to finish ahead of even the most courageous runner who lacked such gifts.
But no one ran the race better than Meb. No casual observer — certainly not me — thought Meb could win, but he ran the whole race as though he could win. He committed himself to the race as few people ever do.
The other guys made mistakes. Maybe if they hadn’t made those mistakes there would have been a different outcome, but that ignores the fundamental reason that people race races, and don’t just compare times. Meb won because he was the better runner on the day, the one who made some of the fastest marathoners the world has ever seen look like also-rans.