BOSTON (AP) — Like Red Sox fans of yore, American marathon hopefuls pour through Kenmore Square every April thinking this could be their year to win the Boston Marathon.
For the past 26 years, top contenders from Bob Kempainen to Alan Culpepper have lined up in Hopkinton on Patriots Day, hoping to claim the most prestigious prize in road running. Deena Kastor, Marla Runyon and Kara Goucher have tried to end a drought for the American women that has reached 24 years, but they, too, always wound up chasing Kenyans or Ethiopians or Russians into the Back Bay.
Not since Lisa Larsen-Weidenbach’s victory in 1985 has “The Star-Spangled Banner” played in Copley Square to celebrate a U.S. victory in the world’s oldest marathon.
But with New York City Marathon champion Meb Keflezighi and fellow Californian Ryan Hall in the field for the 114th edition Monday, the Americans think this could be their chance.
“We’re not dreaming any more. There’s a realistic chance of having a male American winner here,” Mary Wittenberg, director of the New York race, said Friday. “We’ve seen since Meb’s win that American athletes are standing taller. It was one thing to be tapping on the ceiling. Once one person crashes through, it makes all the difference.”
Americans won often in the early days of the Boston Marathon — someone from the U.S. or Canada won all but two of the first 50 races, including four for Bill Rodgers from 1975-1980. When Greg Meyer crossed the line first in 1983, it was the seventh U.S. men’s victory in nine years and the 43rd overall.
But there hasn’t been an American winner since.
“We thought it would keep going on. … I thought I’d do it again,” Meyer said. “But for American marathoners, that was the high-water mark.”
Meyer would like nothing more than to lose the distinction of being the “last American man to win in Boston.” He is in town this weekend to support Hall, Keflezighi and the other U.S. runners, and he thinks this year they might have a chance to outrun the East Africans.
Keflezighi has shown he knows how to win with his New York victory, Meyer said, and Hall demonstrated his talent when he finished third in his Boston debut last year. Now that Hall has more experience, he might be better prepared for tactics necessary to outlast the field on the grueling 26.2-mile course.
“It really takes one effort in Boston to know what you’re doing on that course,” Meyer said. “You look at Ryan Hall and he’s the new Bill Rodgers. But he needs to learn the tactics. The Americans have been missing that element.
“I think Meb showed that Americans could win. It’s one thing to run fast and it’s another thing to know how to win.”
The Kenyans have shown they can do both. Although four-time winner Robert Cheruiyot scratched last month with a hip injury, nine of his countrymen are going for Kenya’s sixth title in eight years. Deriba Merga of Ethiopia is the reigning champion in the men’s field.
Defending women’s champ Salina Kosgei of Kenya is a favorite with four-time winner Catherine Ndereba of Kenya withdrawing 10 days before the start with a muscle tear.
There were no American men in the top 10 at all in Boston from 1995-2001, and other marathons saw a similar decline. American men won the first 13 times in New York, but the U.S. went from 1982 until Keflezighi ended that drought with a victory last fall.
“By me winning New York, it’s an example that it can happen,” said Keflezighi, who lives near Hall and trains with him in Mammoth Lakes, Calif. “We both badly want to win — not for our individual goals only, but for the USA.”
Keflezighi says he’s 95 percent back from a left knee injury he sustained in a slip during training in January, and that he wouldn’t have entered the race if he wasn’t fit to compete.
Keflezighi, who won the Olympic silver medal in Athens in 2004, finished third in Boston in 2006. Hall ran 2 hours, 6 minutes, 17 seconds in London in 2008; Moroccan Abderrahim Goumri is the only runner in the field with a faster personal best (2:05:30).
“They are at the top of the list — up there with the Kenyans and Ethiopians,” Boston race director Guy Morse said. “Having the two top American men participate, head-to-head, is a little bit more insurance that you could have a U.S. winner. The fact that they are both competing so well and appear to be at the top of their form is going to provide another level of interest for the U.S. audience.”
Hall finished fourth to Keflezighi in New York in November to follow a Boston performance in which he led until the last 10 miles. This year he came out three weeks early and has run about 100 miles on the course as opposed to 20 in preparation for 2009.
“I was definitely a newbie on the course going into it last year,” he said, spending much of his time this year in Newton near Heartbreak Hill. “We know each other pretty well. I’ve run it quite a lot.
“I think I’ve learned more from the last three weeks than I did from last year. I don’t remember much from last year; I remember hurting really bad. This time, I feel prepared.”
And this time, he’ll have company.
“I remember last year, looking around and feeling a little bit lonely,” Hall said. “For Meb to be one of the guys (in the pack) … he just makes me feel more comfortable, like I feel in practice when he’s out there.”