Keflezighi, Culpepper best American chances in Boston Marathon

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BOSTON (AP) – Meb Keflezighi might just have everything he needs to win the Boston Marathon: An American passport and East African heritage.

The silver medalist at the Athens Olympics and a naturalized American citizen, 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. But as Keflezighi covers the 26.2 miles from Hopkinton to Boston on Monday during the 110th edition of the world’s oldest marathon, he will have something on his side none of his African predecessors had: A crowd rooting for the first U.S. winner here in more than 20 years.

“The crowd’s definitely going to bring more excitement for those that have the USA uniform on,” said Alan 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.

But Culpepper’s fourth last year and Keflezighi’s second in Athens means the Americans are at least a threat to break the Kenyan stranglehold that claimed 13 out of 14 Boston titles from 1991-2004.

“Why can’t it happen now,” Keflezighi (pronounced: kef-lez-ghee) 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.”

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

Brian Sell, of Woodbury, Pa., and Clint Verran, of Lake Orion, Mich., give the more top 10 hopefuls.

“I’d love to see four Americans in the top 10, and one of the guys taking the win,” said Sell, who was ninth at the world championships last year. “It would be great for American distance running.”

Defending women’s champion Catherine Ndereba, a four-time winner, is not in the field this year, leaving it open for top contenders like Japan’s Reiko Tosa, Latvia’s Jelena Prokopcuka and Kenya’s Rita Jeptoo.

Top American women are scarce.

Ethiopia’s Hailu Negussie returns to defend his men’s crown a year after winning in a hot and windy 2 hours, 11 minutes, 45 seconds. Keflezighi’s personal best of 2:09:53, when he finished second on a flatter New York course in 2004, would be fast enough to win any of the last three Boston races.

But he’s never run here before, a disadvantage that could give a strategic edge to Culpepper. When the two faced each other at the Olympic trails, Culpepper beat Keflezighi by 5 seconds; Culpepper finished 12th in Athens.

“Alan beat Meb in the trials and he knows the course, so that’s on his side. But when you take an Olympic medal, suddenly you have a number on your back,” Rodgers said. “For an American runner to have a chance to win here, it’s great. It drives you. You want to run your best.

“Of course,” Rodgers added, “if you run terribly like I did three times, it is a little crushing.”

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’m 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.”

AP-ES-04-14-06 1650EDT

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