Meb Keflezighi made some history at the U.S. Olympic marathon trials.
The Eritrea-born Keflezighi won Saturday’s race in a personal-best time of 2:09:08 to qualify for his third olympic games. At 36, Keflezighi is the oldest winner of the trial and the first man to win the event and the New York marathon (2009) in his career.
A spectator handed Keflezighi an American flag in the final mile on Saturday, and he waved it and pumped his fist to the cheering crowd as he approached the finish line.
“It was just a magical moment,” Keflezighi said.
The top American men’s and women’s distance runners competed in Houston for three Marathon spots on each team that will represent the U.S. at the Summer Games.
Keflezighi, the silver medalist in the Athens marathon in 2004, was the only man entered Saturday who ran in the New York City Marathon in November. He finished sixth with a personal-best time (2:09.13), then developed an infection in his left foot, the result of leaving a nasal strip in his shoe, part of his pre-race ritual.
He missed three weeks of training, and felt fortunate he was able to get ready for Houston in time. Keflezighi relied on his longtime coach, Bob Larsen, to hand him the nasal strip before Saturday’s race.
“Unfortunately, I made a dumb mistake,” Keflezighi said. “It cost me a bigger PR (personal record) or a higher place. But I believe that through this, anything is possible. I had it on and yes, it helped me breathe better.”
Keflezighi’s late kick on Saturday left 2008 trials winner Ryan Hall and three-time track Olympian Abdi Abdirahman behind and made Keflezighi the leader of the most seasoned U.S. men’s marathon team ever, with an average age of 33 and multiple Olympic appearances between them.
All three men ran under 2 hours, 10 minutes, with Keflezighi’s 2:09:08 setting the standard. Californian Hall finished 22 seconds later, and the Somalia-born Abdirahman was 39 seconds back.
The runners started downtown, then made three circuits around an 8-mile loop, a similar layout to the London course.
“It’s going to be a war of attrition out there (in London),” Hall said. “The three guys that are up here, who made it, I think we’ll be best-suited for the Olympic Games.”
The men’s lead group was down to four runners — Hall, Abdirahman, Ritzenheim and Keflezighi — through 17 miles. Abdirahman waved his arms, encouraging the fans lining the streets to cheer.
After Ritzenheim dropped back, Keflezighi encouraged Hall and Abdirahman to keep up the pace. The trio embraced at the finish line.
“We talked about, ‘Hey, let’s be on the team,” said the 5-foot-7, 127-pound Keflezighi, a father of three. “It’s not about being first, second or third, it’s about being on the team.”
They ran together until the last couple of miles, when Keflezighi accelerated, first with Hall, then alone. Meanwhile, 2008 Olympian Dathan Ritzenhein, who has struggled with injuries and form, clawed his way back up to the front after running for about six miles solo in no-man’s-land and nearly overtook Abdirahman for third, finishing just eight seconds shy of him.
At the finish line, Keflezighi shed tears with his coach and allowed his 74-year-old father to hoist him on his shoulders.