An unforgettable image from the 2014 Boston Marathon is American Meb Keflezighi in the homestretch of the race. Still out front after 26 grueling miles, Meb glanced back over his shoulder several times in the final two-tenths to check his lead. It looked like he was also checking to make sure he wasn't dreaming.
Meb arrived in the United States at age 8, a refugee from Eritrea. He learned the meaning of opportunity, and he devoted himself to a life of "hard work" and "hard prayer." He became a naturalized American citizen.
And 12 days ago, he found himself running in first place down Boylston Street in the world's biggest race.
Meb's excitement, and the crowd's, increased in tandem, until in his final steps before the finish line, Keflezighi raised his sunglasses, pumped his fists, and waved to the thousands cheering for him, drawing in everyone to share his unlikely victory. Meb broke the tape, and broke down in tears at the enormity of his accomplishment. It was a huge surprise. No American had won Boston in 31 years, and nobody as old as Meb had won since 1931.
Last year, Meb didn't even run Boston due to injury. He watched from the finish line grandstand, leaving just moments before the bomb blasts. His early childhood in Eritrea was marked by bombs too, and the marathon terror steeled his determination to do something special in Boston in 2014. He told his brother, "I'm going to come back, and I'm going to win it for this country."
For Meb, this would require a once-in-a-lifetime day. Among his fellow elite runners, all are younger, and most boast a faster personal best. And in the marathon, almost never does everything go right. But Keflezighi has a laser-focused training approach without peer, and he knows perhaps better than anyone how to arrive ready to run his best possible race.
And that's what he did. Meb came to the line in Hopkinton physically, mentally and spiritually prepared. On his racing bib, he wrote four names; the three who died in last year's Boylston Street bombings, and the officer killed in the ensuing manhunt. Before the race, he said an American victory, on this day in particular, would be "beyond words." But for that to happen, everything would need to go right. Everything.
- - -
Everything went right. Meb ran his best marathon ever. He built a big lead through the middle miles. His fellow Americans in the chase pack, seeing that it was his day and not theirs, let him go, and in this way, strategically served to support his lead. In the end, Meb ran a miracle marathon. He won Boston. And he did it on the one day that instantly made it the most meaningful marathon victory in American history.
For all of us, Meb's big win actually illustrates something bigger than running. It reminds us of what made America great: individual enterprise, focus, resolve, devotion, determination, and an embrace of opportunity with no expectation of entitlement.
Sometimes we mistake freedom as a path to guarantees, when freedom is really a glorious experiment in uncertainty, a pursuit of personal possibilities that drives us forward precisely because they are not guaranteed. As in the marathon, the outcome of our aspirations is never certain, but uncertainty does not diminish the intensity of the true competitor, or the faith of the true believer.
Alexis de Tocqueville presciently described this uniquely American formula, and even, it seems, described Meb himself, running the course from Hopkinton to Boston: "Born often under another sky, placed in the middle of an always moving scene, himself driven by the irresistible torrent which draws all about him, the American has no time to tie himself to anything, he grows accustomed only to change, and ends by regarding it as the natural state of man. He feels the need of it, more he loves it; for the instability; instead of meaning disaster to him, seems to give birth only to miracles all about him."
The Boston Marathon is always run on Patriots Day, the Massachusetts holiday commemorating the first battles of the American Revolution. In this light, the Boston Marathon is directly connected with the exceptionally American idea of freedom. The terror attack at the 2013 Boston Marathon was an attempt to tear that idea apart. It didn't work. We won. And as long as we respond to the opportunities of freedom the way Meb responded to the opportunity of his race, we always will.
Matt Kinnaman works in the education publishing business.