BOSTON (USA TODAY) - In one of the most memorable victories in Boston Marathon history, Meb Keflezighi became the first American man since 1983 to wear the laurel wreath. With the backdrop of so much tragedy, in front of many of those gravely wounded in last year's attacks, Keflezighi raised his arms in victory as he crossed the finish line at 2:08:37.
He looked up to the sky, then kissed the ground three times. He took a bow, then emotion won out as he put his hands over his face and broke into tears.
Wilson Chebet of Kenya was second in 2:08.48.
Keflezighi's win was entirely unexpected. Turning 39 next month, his best days seemed to be in his past, especially given the Kenyan stronghold on the race. Since 1991, a runner from Kenya has won the men's race 19 times.
After the race, Keflezighi hugged Greg Meyer, the last American man to win the race in 1983. "He told me two days ago, 'You're the smartest guy there,'" Keflezighi said. "Then this morning before I took off, he said, 'Go get it done. You can do it. You can do it. There can't be a better person to pass it on.'"
Wearing a red and white top and blue shorts, Keflezighi was cheered by massive crowds from Hopkinton to Boylston Street. He was born in the African nation of Eritrea but immigrated to the U.S. with his family when he was 12 and lives in San Diego with his wife and three daughters.
He didn't race last year but was in the stands, leaving only about five minutes before the bombs went off. Today Keflezighi, a three-time Olympian, returned to the same spot and gave the city a reason to cheer.
The 2004 Olympic silver medalist won his last major marathon at the Olympic trials in 2012. He also won the New York marathon in 2009.
Keflezighi broke away from Josphat Boit, an American runner who was born in Kenya, midway through the race. By mile 17, Keflezighi had a minute lead over the pack that included defending champion Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia.
Rita Jeptoo of Kenya defended her title in the women's race, setting a course record of 2:18.57. American Shalane Flanagan set a fast pace through the first half, leading the women's pack at the halfway mark and finishing seventh in 2:22.02.
The field was announced at 35,755, second only to the centennial race in 1996 when a record 38,708 ran.
Tight security was in place, giving the race a different feel from the past. Along the course, more than 3,500 police officers were out along with 800 National Guard soldiers and airmen. A crowd of 1 million was expected for the race, which started with a moment of silence.
Strict new protocol required runners to check all their gear in officially approved bags, then pass through security checkpoints before boarding school buses. Pedestrians clapped as a team of more than 50 state and local police in florescent jackets rode through the Common on mountain bikes.
Runners, family members and spectators alike explained how they had made special arrangements to be on site this year in response to last year's bombings.
"The whole concept of terrorism and the impact it has on the country – it resonated with me," said Bryan Crenshaw, who came up from Philadelphia for the event. "For that scar to impact this event is horrifying. I wanted to be here to just sort of support the healing process."
Crenshaw was cheering on his cousin, Reid Bolinger of Greensboro, N.C., who ran last year but didn't get to finish after the bombs went off.
"It does feel different from last year," said spectator Raj Chavan of Newton. He came downtown with his 10-year-old son, he said, in an act of defiance against global terrorism, which he said has impacted his native India as well as the United States and other nations.
"It's sending a message of resiliency," Chavan said. "We're not going to stay out. We're going to cheer."