Running competitively on the roads for the first time in his hometown, Meb Keflezighi didn't have time to acknowledge all the well-wishers along his half-marathon route at Sunday's (5) Dodge Rock 'n' Roll San Diego Marathon and Half Marathon to Benefit the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Instead, he rewarded them with one of the most memorable races of his illustrious career.
At the second edition, Keflezighi delighted a cheering, happy crowd at the SeaWorld finish line by winning handily in 1:2:40, nearly three minutes ahead of runner-up Drew Polley (1:05:38).
As much as the spectators reveled in Keflezighi's victory, they also marveled at Bizunesh Deba's triumph in the women's marathon. At the 14th running, the 23-year-old Ethiopian burst across the finish line in 2:23:31, an event record and the fastest time ever run by a woman in California. The previous state best was 2:24:52 by Joan Benoit (USA) at the inaugural women's Olympic Marathon in Los Angeles on August 5, 1984. The San Diego Marathon course is not record standard per USA Track & Field rule because it drops more than 1 metre per kilometre.
The men's marathon winner was Terfa Negari also of Ethiopia in 2:11:18, and the women's half-marathon champion was Gina Slaby of Tucson, Ariz., in 1:16:33. While the performances by Deba, Negari and Slaby were impressive, it was Keflezighi who intrigued the crowd the most.
The UCLA grad led all the way, pulling away from Kenya's Martin Lel after four miles on the undulating, curvy course through the streets of San Diego. Lel, a three-time winner of the London Marathon and the runner-up of that event this year, shadowed Keflezighi through the early stages of the race. Then, when Keflezighi ripped off a 4:24 spurt from mile three to four, Lel was done. He struggled for another two miles before dropping out. After that, it was Keflezighi against the clock.
"He probably would have run a faster time if Martin (Lel) had been in good shape and stayed in the race. His body might still not have recovered from London," said Bob Larsen, Keflezighi's longtime coach. "The downhills really favored Meb. Lel was struggling to stay with him. Meb really surged on (Highway) 163, which was uphill. Then there was another downhill and Meb surged again. Meb had it in his mind to test him. Those surges put Meb in a dominant position."
Keflezighi pushed the pace from the outset, trying to test Lel's physical condition. "I was pushing very hard," he said. "I was very aggressive."
It paid off in one of the most satisfying wins for Keflezighi, 36, the 2009 ING New York City Marathon champion and 2004 Olympic silver medallist, who was also the first American male to reach the Games' Marathon podium since Frank Shorter took the silver in 1976 after winning in 1972.
Lots of the satisfaction came from the atmosphere surrounding the race. "It was wonderful to win in my hometown," he said. "It was my first time running here. Lots of people were calling my name. I saw my high school classmates. I recognized a lot of people."
"It was my best time of the year," Keflezighi continued. "It was a great day for me."
"My English teacher from high school once said I would run like the wind," he added, as the two fondly embraced just past the finish line.
Deba also appeared to be running like the wind. Through 15 kilometres, she was on pace for a 2:15 marathon. At the half-marathon, her time was 1:09:53, compared to her previous distance best of 1:13. Although she slowed slightly over the closing miles, she was still in command, beating countrywoman Misiker Mekonnen (2:25:21) by nearly two minutes. She also bettered her previous fastest time (2:26:34) at Los Angeles in March and ran even faster than her husband's (Worku Beyi) best time of 2:25:07.
"I will try harder to get the (family) record back," Beyi said with an embarrassed smile. "I will not sleep anymore."
For Deba, who now lives in The Bronx, N.Y., the race comprised her sixth win in eight marathons and established her as a solid contender for next year's Olympics in London.
In contrast, the men's champion Negari won for the first time in seven marathons. After having finished second three times, Negari was so elated that he kissed the ground just past the finish. He pulled away from the field near mile 19.
"The pace was easy and the pacemaker was no good," he said, according to Beyi, who served as his translator. "My body told me to go faster."
Another Ethioipian Tesfaye Sendeku finished second at 2:12:23, while Kenyan's Gilbert Chepkwony and Christopher Torotich placed third (2:12:50) and fourth (2:14:18) respectively. American Luke Humphrey, who runs with the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project in Michigan, finished fifth overall as the top American with a new personal best time of 2:14:39.
Daniel Tapia of Castroville, Calif. finished seventh with a personal best time of 2:16:50, a qualifier for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials next January in Houston. Also qualifying for the Trials was Humphries' Hansons-Brooks teammate Sage Canaday, who finished eighth with a new personal best of 2:16:52.
Bert Rosenthal for the IAAF
1) Terfa Negari (ETH), 2:11:18, $25,000
2) Tesfaye Sendeku (ETH), 2:12:23, $17,500
3) Gilbert Chepkwony (KEN), 2:12:50, $10,000
4) Christopher Torotich (KEN), 2:14:18, $7500
5) Luke Humphrey (USA / MI), 2:14:39, $5000
1) Bizunesh Deba (ETH), 2:23:31*, $30,000#
2) Misiker Mekonnen (ETH), 2:25:21, $17,500
3) Helena Kirop (KEN), 2:27:01, $10,000
4) Olena Shurkhno (UKR), 2:28:34, $7500
5) Salina Kosgei (KEN), 2:32:06, $5000
*fastest woman's marathon in California (previous best, 2:24:52, Joan Benoit (USA), 1984 Olympics, Los Angeles, August 5, 1984)
#includes $5000 Event Record bonus
1) Meb Keflezighi (CA), 1:02:40
2) Drew Polley (MI), 1:05:38
3) Jeffrey Jackson (CA), 1:06:49
1) Gina Slaby (AZ), 1:16:33
2) Joanna Zeiger, 41, CO, 1:19:03
3) Lisa Raske (NY), 1:19:29