Ever since Meb Keflezighi won last year's Boston Marathon, the first race after the finish-line bombings and the first win for an American man in more than 30 years, fans have been gravitating to him wherever he goes.
It hasn't been the usual victory lap.
"It's not even 'Congratulations.' It's 'Thank you,'" he said last week as he reflected on his cathartic victory. "You never know what crossing that finish line will bring you. But I feel so blessed that I was able to pull it off."
A native Eritrean who came to the United States at the age of 12 to escape war and poverty, Keflezighi reacted to the bombings in the same way as many others in his adopted homeland: He wanted to do something for the victims.
Not just the families of the four who died or the 260 others who were wounded, but the people of Boston and runners around the world who were stunned by the attacks on the world's most prestigious road race.
"For 365 days since the bombing, I was thinking, 'What can I do?'" he said.
Then he saw how the Red Sox's 2013 World Series championship helped galvanize the city. And when the ballclub placed its trophy — with a "Boston Strong" jersey draped over it — on the marathon finish line during the victory parade, Keflezighi had an idea.
"I said, 'I want to do that for the runners,'" he said.
At 38, five years removed from his New York Marathon victory and a decade since his Olympic silver medal, Keflezighi was an unlikely candidate to win the race. No American man had won the race since Greg Meyer in 1983; only once since Keflezighi was third in 2006 had a U.S. man even reached the podium.
But, drawing energy from the unprecedented crowds, Keflezighi raced past the sites of the explosions on Boylston Street to break the tape in a personal best time of 2 hours, 8 minutes, 37 seconds.
"All runners can relate, how meaningful the Boston Marathon is," said Keflezighi, who had written on his race bib the names of the four who died in the bombings and their aftermath. "If it was any other race, I would have gotten caught. But I tried to draw inspiration from people.
"They wanted 'Boston Strong.' I'm going to give them 'Meb Strong.'"
Since then, Keflezighi received a congratulatory call from President Barack Obama and was invited to the White House for dinner. New Boston Mayor Mary Walsh told him during the award ceremony it was his first — and it would probably be his most meaningful.
But mostly, it's been the exchanges he's had every day with people who have told him how his victory helped them move past the bombings.
"To get greeted like that, it transcended the sport," he said. "Yeah, it was a race. But at the same time it was beyond a race, because of what was on the line. The Boston Marathon has a legacy that has gone beyond just running."
Two weeks before his 40th birthday, Keflezighi is healthy and back to try again. He would be the first man to win back-to-back races since Kenya's Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot won his third in a row in 2008.
No American man has won consecutive Boston Marathons since Bill Rodgers finished first three straight times from 1978-80. This women's field includes Shalane Flanagan and Desiree Linden, who could give the United States its first victory in that race since 1985.
"This might be their year. It could be my year defending the title. Who knows?" Keflezighi said. "May the best man and woman win."
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