NEW YORK - That day in Central Park 2 years ago was shaping up as a triumphant symbol of the resurgence in American distance running Meb Keflezighi helped inspire.
He left with an aching hip and, far worse, an aching heart.
Keflezighi was back yesterday, wiping away tears after the New York City Marathon - for his historic victory for his country, for his recovery from an injury he once feared might end his career.
And for Ryan Shay, his friend who collapsed and died at the U.S. Olympic trials in New York in 2007.
Keflezighi, 34, became the first American man since 1982 to win the NYC Marathon, the latest twist in the story of a family that fled war to thrive in a new home.
"It can't get any better," Keflezighi said.
Derartu Tulu, of Ethiopia, was the women's winner, capping a stunning comeback of her own on a day when a record field of nearly 44,000 started the 40th edition of this race. Two-time defending champion Paula Radcliffe fell back to fourth, hobbled by tendinitis behind her left knee.
Keflezighi won silver at the 2004 Olympics, the first American man to medal since 1976. Yesterday's race proved how much depth the United States now boasts: With the event doubling as the national championship, six Americans finished in the top 10 for the first time since '79.
Eleven years ago, Keflezighi wrote a letter to Alberto Salazar, the last American man to win in New York. Salazar was working with Nike, and Keflezighi told him that for U.S. distance running to thrive, athletes needed the funding to allow them to train full-time.
That same year, Keflezighi became an American citizen. He was born in the East African nation of Eritrea, growing up in a hut with no electricity. Soldiers would surround his village, looking for boys 12 and older to drag off to war.
When he was 10, his family moved to Italy; 2 years later, they came to the United States. Keflezighi began running in junior high in San Diego, then went on to star at UCLA.
"Definitely today wearing that USA jersey got the crowd going," he said. "Definitely wore it with big honor and pride."
Tulu's breakthrough victory came 17 years ago at the Barcelona Olympics, when she won the 10,000 meters to become the first black African woman to capture a gold medal. She took gold again in 2000, then won her only previous major marathon title in London the following year.
Tulu had struggled with her weight and endurance after the birth of her second daughter 3 years ago. But when she ran well at a half-marathon in Philadelphia in September, the 37-year-old decided to enter New York.
Tulu won in 2 hours, 28 minutes, 52 seconds, as 14 mph winds slowed the runners on a cool day.
Keflezighi pulled away from Kenya's Robert Cheruiyot in the 23rd mile to beat the four-time Boston Marathon champ by 41 seconds. His time of 2:09:15 was a personal best. *