Keflezighi is America's top bet for Boston win

Updated: April 17, 2006, 1:15 AM ET
ESPN.com news services

BOSTON -- Olympic silver medalist Meb Keflezighi poses the biggest threat to 2005 winner Hailu Negussie in an expected Boston Marathon showdown on Monday between American and African runners.

Keflezighi (pronounced: kef-lez-ghee) heads a strong American contingent taking on Ethiopian Negussie and previous champions Robert Cheruiyot and Timothy Cherigat from Kenya.

"The unusually strong and large American contingent is definitely the story at Boston this year," said Amby Burfoot, who won the race in 1968 and is now an executive editor at Runner's World magazine.

"But one should never underestimate the strength of the Ethiopians and Kenyans," he added.

Keflezighi, 30, ranked as America's top marathon runner in 2005 by Track & Field News, is entering his first Boston race.

"My No. 1 goal is to be No. 1 in my first Boston Marathon, and I always run to win," Keflezighi told Reuters on Friday, adding that the buzz that an American could win the 110th Boston race is growing.

Americans Alan Culpepper, whose fourth-place finish in Boston last year marked the highest finish for a U.S. runner since 1987, Brian Sell and Clint Verran round out an elite U.S. team.

They face a field of at least 11 African runners including Kenyan Wilson Onsare, who finished second last year, and a handful of newcomers to the hilly course.

"The crowd's definitely going to bring more excitement for those that have the USA uniform on," said Culpepper, whose fourth-place finish last year was the best for a U.S. man since 1987.

"It wouldn't be a surprise to me to see an American win. As an American athlete, I've just seen the progress happening. I've seen how far we've come in the last five years."

The last American to win in Boston was Lisa Larsen-Weidenbach in 1985. No American man has won since Greg Meyer in 1983. Twelve times since then, there have been no Americans in the top 10; in '88, nearly a decade after the last of his four victories, Bill Rodgers was the top U.S. finisher despite coming in 28th overall.

"Why can't it happen now?" Keflezighi said Friday. "It would mean a lot for me personally, but also for the whole United States. I know the whole crowd's behind me. I know the whole United States is behind me.

"It's not just a shot. I have a legitimate shot, and I have to do well on Monday."

Latvia's Jelena Prokopcuka, last year's New York City Marathon winner, and Japan's Reiko Tosa head the women's field in the absence of four-time winner Catherine Ndereba.

Boston will also kick off the new World Marathon Majors, a two-year series designed to draw more runners by allowing top male and female racers to earn points at the world's top five marathons for a total $1 million prize.

"Boston has been at the beginning of so many revolutions and this is another one for the sport," Guy Morse, executive director of the Boston Athletic Association, said.

"With this year's competition the athletes will be vying to be placed on the leaderboard for that series."

A key change will be the wave start which separates the field into groups of roughly 10,000 for a smoother race start.

At the end, the course will be rerouted slightly, adding a final hill to the race best known for its wrenching Heartbreak Hill, the most infamous half-mile stretch in American sport.

Keflezighi was born near the cradle of Boston champions in the Horn of Africa nation of Eritrea. To the south of his homeland is Ethiopia and to the south of that is Kenya; together, they account for 16 of the last 18 men's winners in Boston and eight of nine on the women's side.

Keflezighi came to the United States in 1987 as a sixth-grader and became a citizen in 1998.

Although the 30-year-old Keflezighi has never run the course in one shot, he covered it in 10-12 mile chunks during a January visit. It was during that trip that he also got a chance to talk to Rodgers about the race.

"He gave me his cell phone number and told me to call if I needed anything," Keflezighi said.

Did the man known as "Boston Billy" give his fellow American any secret tips?

"He said, 'You've just got to be smart. Be patient,"' Keflezighi said. "'And when you make a move, make it count."'

Because he's never competed here, Keflezighi watched the last few races on tape, hoping to pick up some pointers.

"I've watched who won, and when they made their move," he said. "I'm still learning about the race. But the tradition's huge. As soon as you tell someone you're a distance runner, they say, 'Did you run the Boston Marathon.' I say, 'Not yet, maybe soon."'

Longtime UCLA track coach Bob Larsen, who's working with Keflezighi, said Boston is especially difficult for newcomers who don't know what to expect. Hilly courses lend themselves to tactical racing, and knowing when to be patient and when to push ahead can be the key.

"A lot of people compare Athens and Boston. Athens was very smooth for me," Keflezighi said. "It's a challenging course and I like challenges.

"I just hope to be relaxed until mile 20 and then push it for the last six miles," Keflezighi said. "If somebody has trained harder and smarter than I have, let him prevail."

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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