It only took 27 years. For the first time since Alberto Salazar ran away with the title in 1982, an American won the ING New York City Marathon. On Sunday, Nov. 1, Meb Keflezighi cruised to victory in 2:09:15 wearing a “U.S.A.” singlet. Does his win signal the return of the great American marathoner?
Back in the 1970s and early 1980s, marathon legends Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers, Joan Benoit Samuelson and Salazar enjoyed an era when Americans actually won races, and inspired a generation of runners to hit the pavement in the process—running boom, anyone? Indeed, Rodgers has the most major marathon wins—8 of them—of any runner in history according to the World Marathon Majors, a two-year race series with a $1 million prize. (New York, Boston, Chicago, London and Berlin comprise the Majors, along with the Olympics and World Championships as qualifying races.) But African runners have largely dominated the sport since. Sure, an American star like Deena Kastor—who won Chicago in 2005 and London in 2006—has challenged the status quo every now and then. But on the world’s streets at large, the U.S. hasn’t been a factor. Certainly not like Kenya or Ethiopia. But this year on the mean streets of New York, a total of six American men finished in the top 10—the most since 1979—with Keflezighi taking the crown. All signs point to a potential renaissance.
Lately, there’s been a lot of buzz building around a few runners on Team USA. Young and toothy, Kara Goucher (who Salazar now coaches) and Ryan Hall are arguably the reigning darlings of American distance running.
Goucher, 31, burst onto the marathon scene last year with a third place finish at the 2008 ING New York City Marathon, logging the fastest marathon debut by an American woman. She followed it up with another third place finish at the 2009 Boston Marathon among stiff international competition. Kastor, the American marathon record holder, no longer stands as the lone international star of the women’s team.
All eyes have been on Hall since his victory at the Olympic Trials in New York City in 2007. The 27-year old Hall came in 10th in Beijing, and has generated more heat as of late. He finished third at the 2009 Boston Marathon, and was the first American to win the 2009 ING Philadelphia Distance Run in 23 years, beating out a pack of Kenyans. He is the American record holder in the half-marathon and has the fastest marathon time of any American-born runner. His best time is three minutes faster than Keflezighi’s.
Accordingly, most of the New York pre-race chatter centered on Hall; will he or won’t he seemed to be the question on everyone’s lips—like this article in Runner’s World or this one in USA Today. He even graced posters advertising the race. You get the idea. Keflezighi was running in Hall’s shadow. That is, until mile 24 when Keflezighi pulled away from Kenyan sensation and four-time Boston Marathon champion Robert Cheruiyot—ranked the third best marathoner of all time according to the Majors. Hall fought hard to finish fourth.
Keflezighi, 34, is a veteran of the American running scene. He was once the Great American Hope when he ran away with the silver medal at the 2004 Olympic games on the storied road from Marathon to Athens, and in doing so, was the first American man to win a marathon medal in 28 years. (Kastor picked up a bronze for the women that year too.) But after a hip injury at the Olympic Trials in 2007 where he finished eighth, some wondered if his career was over. With a personal best time in New York, he’s answered those doubters with a resounding “not by a long shot.” Indeed, at least one pundit has already ranked Keflezighi as the ninth best American marathoner ever, with Hall in 10th.
Yes, there are naysayers who would diminish Keflezighi’s victory by pointing out that he was born in the African-country of Eritrea. Well, I say bah-humbug to them. Keflezighi is the very definition of an American, having immigrated to San Diego with his family at the age of 12. He clocked his first 5:20 mile in American junior high, went on to excel at UCLA, and became an American citizen. With the last 22 of his 34 years spent in the U.S., he is very much the product of American schooling, coaching, sponsorships and running—all factors in a would-be American resurgence. He is American. Period. And heck, if America can embrace Arnold Schwarzenegger—who came to the U.S. as an adult—as a citizen and Governor of Ca-li-for-ni-a, America can embrace Keflezighi. Don’t be icky.
Watching the race in New York, I was excited to see Americans in the lead pack. Seeing Keflezighi point to the “U.S.A.” on his singlet as he barreled into the finish in Central Park was quite simply exhilarating. I wanted to cry with him as he kissed the ground.
But even if his win doesn’t usher in the next era of American marathon greatness, it proves that Americans can still rank among the world best in distance running, that Kastor’s and Keflezighi’s previous successes haven’t been flukes. Team USA can get it done. And to the other Americans who finished in the top 10, Hall included, I say keep it rolling. An American renaissance may be real yet.