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Sunday, June 23, 2013
Lelisa Desisa gives medal to Boston

By Jack McCluskey
Special to ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- About 100 meters from the finish, Lelisa Desisa thought he was in position to pull off a surprise win.

If it feels strange to think the men's winner of the 2013 Boston Marathon would be an unlikely champion of the Boston Athletic Association 10K, it shouldn't. Desisa didn't train for the event, the second leg of the BAA's Distance Medley, and if it weren't for the bombings at the marathon in April that left three people dead and more than 250 injured, he wouldn't have been in the field at all.

Lelisa Desisa
Lelisa Desisa presents his medal for winning April's Boston Marathon to Mayor Thomas Menino as a gift to the city and those affected by the bombings.

But after the bombings, Desisa decided that he would run the race and donate his marathon championship medal as a gesture of goodwill to the people affected. It figured to be a largely symbolic run, the most recent Boston champion back on the streets of the city, legs pumping, with a bib on his chest.

Then the race unfolded, and there Desisa was ahead of the pack entering the home stretch around the Public Garden and up Charles Street toward the finish line.

"I thought I was going to be the winner with 100 meters to go," Desisa said through a translator, "and then the guy passed me."

The guy was Stephen Sambu, a 24-year-old Kenya native and Arizona State graduate, who used a strong finishing kick -- something he's been working hard on lately -- to win the race and deprive Desisa of the storybook ending.

"If I didn't win, I would definitely be second, so I was like, 'I'll try,'" Sambu said of the final push to win at 28:06. "When we turned that corner, the last corner over there … I was like, 'OK, let me try. If I don't get him, I'll just leave it.' And then I tried and when I passed him he didn't react, so I was like 'OK, let me go.'"

Sambu's win not only scuttled the made-for-TV-movie script -- with Desisa returning his championship medal as a sign of respect then winning a replacement medal -- it also reinforced the sense of a return to normalcy that many of the 5,445 official runners and the hundreds of volunteers and BAA staff felt on this sunny Sunday morning in June.

The day's best runners won -- with Mamitu Daska winning the women's race in 31:45 -- and everything was the way it should be.

Before the race began, BAA executive director and longtime Boston Marathon finish-line announcer Tom Grilk addressed the crowd.

"Today is a day when we, and you, get back to normal," Grilk said. "Since April 15, we have seen a great many civic organizations and sports teams pull together in a demonstration that Boston would not submit to fear or terror. And that's really what the whole term 'Boston Strong' is all about.

"We live our lives here the way we've always lived our lives. That is to say you and everybody else around here doesn't get stopped by the horrible acts of a couple of scoundrels. Today, here, you demonstrate that you are Boston Strong."

Representing all the Marathon first responders on Sunday were three medical volunteers: registered nurse Lynn Landry, who volunteered in the medical tent; registered nurse Susan Papalia, who was on the Marathon sweep team, meaning she was one of the first onto the course to help after the attack; and Dr. Aaron Baggish, the Marathon medical director.

Before he fired the traditional starter's pistol to begin the race, Baggish -- who serves as associate director for the cardiovascular performance program at Massachusetts General Hospital -- had another role to play.

"There was no example maybe more stirring to a lot of us … than what the Boston Bruins did in their first home game after the Marathon," Grilk said, referring to the crowd-led national anthem. "Now they're working toward another Stanley Cup -- didn't go so well last night, but same as the last time they did win [the Cup] all they have to do is win the last two games -- so in honor of that show of respect … we present, humbly, the flag that was waved at the Boston Garden that began this incredible run."

To cheers, Baggish walked just in front of the start/finish line and waved the now-familiar black-and-gold "Boston Strong" flag with the spoked-B Bruins logo serving as the B.

After the ceremony was over and the race was underway, Baggish said in an interview that it was the first time he'd been back to the finish line of a race since Marathon Monday.

Baggish said he felt a lot of "complex emotions" about being back, and called being honored before the race "incredibly meaningful."

"So many people played a role in why that day ended up being as successful as it was," he said. "And to be one of the people that was honored, it's quite meaningful."

While a win would have been meaningful for Desisa, the fourth Ethiopian to win the Boston Marathon, he was happy with second place on Sunday.

He was never running this race to win, anyway.

"The reason I want to give the medal back is I want people to know I feel the pain," Desisa said of his decision to give his championship medal to the city, which he did in a ceremony with Mayor Thomas M. Menino shortly after the race. "The pain I have is with me, [and] that only encourages me, every time when I run."

It helps that he has a daily reminder when he's home, training in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Desisa, through his translator, said that after Abebe Mekonnen became the first Ethiopian to win Boston in 1989, he started a trend upon his return home.

"When he trained in that area, he won Boston," Desisa said. "So after he came back to Ethiopia, he called that place 'Boston.' So now, when I go to train all runners we call that area 'Boston.'"

So while there was no storybook ending and the weather was a little too hot and humid to be considered ideal for running, the first BAA race since the Marathon tragedy went off without a hitch.

And though he had to be at least a little disappointed to get outkicked to the tape, Desisa didn't show it afterward. He was too busy looking forward.

"I'll definitely be back next year," he said.

Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.