What often has been described as a "sea of humanity," the waves and waves of people running from Staten Island to Central Park in the five-borough New York City Marathon, Sunday was mostly just flotsam in the wake of 34-year-old Meb Keflezighi.
The Eritrean-born American led the annual stampede of elite professionals and everyday folk, including a surprising new surge of U.S. male talent, to win the 26-mile, 385-yard test in 2 hours, 9 minutes, 15 seconds. The 43,740 trailing him represented the largest marathon field ever and included Keflezighi's final challenger, four-time Boston Marathon champion Robert Cheruiyot of Kenya, who finished second in 2:09:56, 41 seconds behind. Morocco's Jaouad Gharib was third in 2:10:25.
With just more than two miles to go, Keflezighi - it's pronounced kuh-FLEZ-ghee - at last broke Cheruiyot and sailed the last yards while pointing repeatedly to the "USA" on his white running shirt and giving a thumbs up. Not since Alberto Salazar, in 1982, had an American, male or female, won New York. And not so far behind Keflezighi, in an event dominated by Kenyans, South Africans, Ethiopians, Portuguese and Britons in recent years, were five more Americans in the top 10 and a total of 12 - counting Keflezighi - in the top 20.
Ryan Hall was fourth, Jorge Torres seventh, Nick Arciniaga eighth, Abdi Abdirahman ninth and Jason Lehmkuhle 10th.
"I think," said Torres, a Chicago native based in Colorado who was making his marathon debut at 29, "there's a new era of distance running for young Americans, who may not look up to us, but they'll try to challenge us."
It was "a huge day," said Keflezighi, whose second place at the 2004 Athens Games was the first U.S. Olympic men's marathon medal since Frank Shorter's silver in 1976 and has been credited for the event's professional revival in America. "You visualize, you visualize," Keflezighi said of the victory, "but when you realize it, it really hits home. And it's very sweet. I can't put it into words."
He twice had made the medal podium in previous New York attempts, with a second place in 2004 and third in 2005. But repeatedly falling just short of a major marathon title and a series of injuries had conspired to keep him in the shadows of any sort of sporting celebrity. Plus, of course, his sport merely is marathoning, dismissed by much of the American public currently locked on to baseball developments.
But to give an idea of what Keflezighi did Sunday, his two-plus hours of physical activity equaled roughly 385 trips around the bases, something Yankees star Derek Jeter needs almost four seasons to complete. Keflezighi, furthermore, was traveling at a pace faster than five minutes per mile.
Besides the way he survived the rate of attrition of such a demanding endeavor, as the men's lead pack was pared from 12 at the halfway mark, to six at 18 miles, to four at 20 and two at 22, Keflezighi, who became a U.S. citizen in 1998, has the back story of being a refugee, with his family, of Eritrea's bloody 30-year war to win independence from Ethiopia.
"What does it mean to be an American?" he said. "In America, people come from different backgrounds. I was born in Eritrea; I am proud of my heritage. I was raised here; I am proud I'm American. I was here in sixth grade. I started running in America."
And is still going.