BOSTON (AP) — A year ago, an injured Meb Keflezighi watched the Boston Marathon from the stands at the finish line on Boylston Street, leaving five minutes before the bombs went off.
On Monday, with tens of thousands of spectators cheering wildly for him, the 38-year-old who emigrated from Eritrea as a child became the first U.S. man to win the race in 31 years.
"They're saying, 'You can pull this off. Go Meb! Go Meb!,'" he said. "I was using that as energy. I had the (names of the) four people that passed away on my bib. Like me, they were spectators, I was a spectator. I had them on my bib number. They helped me carry through."
Keflezighi, running just two weeks before his 39th birthday, added Boston to a resume that includes the New York City Marathon title in 2009 and a silver medal in the 2004 Olympics.
Keflezighi completed the 26.2 miles from Hopkinton to the finish on Boylston Street in Boston's Back Bay on Monday in a personal-best 2 hours, 8 minutes, 37 seconds. He held off Kenya's Wilson Chebet, who finished 11 seconds behind. Frankline Chepkwony of Kenya was 13 seconds back.
Keflezighi went out early and built a big lead. But he was looking over his shoulder several times as Chebet and Chepkwony closed the gap over the final two miles. After realizing he wouldn't be caught, Keflezighi raised his sunglasses, began pumping his right fist and made the sign of the cross. He threw his arms in the air and broke into tears after crossing the finish line, then draped himself in the American flag.
"Toward the end, to be honest I was a little nervous," he said. "I was saying save something for the end."
No U.S. runner had won the race since Lisa Larsen-Weidenbach took the women's title in 1985; the last American man to win was Greg Meyer in 1983. Meyer and Keflezighi embraced after the race.
"I'm blessed to be an American and God bless America and God Bless Boston for this special day," Keflezighi said.
Rita Jeptoo of Kenya successfully defended the women's title she said she could not enjoy a year ago. Jeptoo finished in a course-record 2 hours, 18 minutes, 57 seconds. She is a three-time Boston Marathon champion, having also won in 2006.
"I came here to support the people in Boston and show them that we are here together," she said. "I decided to support them and show them we are here together."
Jeptoo broke away from a group of five runners at the 23-mile mark. Buzunesh Deba of Ethiopia finished second in 2:19:59. Countrywoman Mare Dibaba was third at 2:19:52. All three women came in under the previous course record.
American Shalane Flanagan, who went to high school in nearby Marblehead, Mass., finished seventh after leading for more than half the race. She gambled by setting the early pace, but fell back on the Newton Hills about 21 miles into the race.
"It does mean a lot to be that my city was proud of me," she said. "I'm proud of how I ran. I don't wish I was it was easier. I wish I was better."
After breaking a 27-year American drought at the New York marathon, Keflezighi contemplated retiring after the 2012 NYC Marathon. But that race was canceled because of Superstorm Sandy, and he pulled out of the Boston Marathon last April because of injury.
He was the first American to win a medal in an Olympic marathon since Frank Shorter won gold in 1972 and silver in 1976. His 2009 New York victory broke a 27-year American drought there.
He was inspired, he said, by another former American champion.
"I've been reading Bill Rodgers' book, 'Marathon man,'" he said. "I just visualized that race every day since last year. I've been visualizing this moment for me personally."
Another American, Tatyana McFadden, celebrated her 25th birthday Monday by winning the women's wheelchair race for the second straight year. She was timed in in 1 hour, 35 minutes, 6 seconds.
McFadden was born in Russia and lived in an orphanage as a child before starring at the University of Illinois. She also won the 2013 NYC Marathon women's wheelchair race after taking the titles in Boston, London and Chicago last year.
Ernst van Dyk of South Africa won the men's wheelchair division for a record 10th time. The 41-year-old crossed the finish line in 1 hour, 20 minutes, 36 seconds.
Van Dyk holds the record for most all-categories Boston Marathon wins. This was his first win at this race since 2010.
Last year's men's champion, Lelisa Desisa, did not finish this year's race, and had to be picked up by a van about 21 miles into the event.
Marathon officials said 35,755 runners registered for the race, and 31,779 crossed the finish line before the clock was turned off at 6:15 p.m. The field included just less than 5,000 runners who did not finish last year and accepted invitations to return this year.
Associated Press freelance writer Ken Powtak contributed to this report.