CAPE ELIZABETH – Meb Keflezighi entered the press tent after finishing third in the Bix 7-Mile Road Race last weekend in Davenport, Iowa, and spotted Joan Benoit Samuelson, the women’s masters champion for the 12th time.
Keflezighi, who had led the race in the early going, gave Samuelson a big smile and whispered, “I saved something for the Beach to Beacon.”
“Good!” replied Samuelson, who will preside over the 16th edition of the Beach to Beacon on the streets of her hometown Saturday.
Keflezighi, 38, returns to Cape Elizabeth for the first time since 2007 as one of the three U.S. Olympians who have a chance to become the first American to win the Beach to Beacon. The others are Ryan Hall, 30, of Big Bear Lake, Calif., and Deena Kastor, 40, of Mammoth, Calif.
“We’re delighted to have Meb and Deena and Ryan with us this year,” Samuelson said. In Iowa, Keflezighi “looked great, on a notoriously tough course,” she said, “so I think he’s going to be a really tough contender here.”
Kastor has been to Cape Elizabeth but pulled out of the 2011 race after becoming ill just before the event. She’s the only other American woman besides Samuelson to win an Olympic marathon medal, earning bronze in the 2004 Athens Games two decades after Samuelson won gold in Los Angeles.
In 2003, Kastor lowered Samuelson’s American record in the marathon, a mark that stood for 18 years, and three years later became the first American woman to run under 2 hours, 20 minutes.
She gave birth to a daughter in 2011 and is tuning up for the IAAF world championships in Moscow, where she will run the marathon.
On Saturday, Kastor’s challenge will be to chase down Kenyans Linet Masai, Joyce Chepkirui and Lineth Chepkurui. The latter is the 2010 champion and course record holder at 30:59, and the recent winner of major road races in Atlanta and Utica, N.Y.
A political issue prevented Chepkirui from competing in the Kenyan national championships so she has something to prove, said Larry Barthlow, who is responsible for filling the race’s elite field.
“When (Chepkirui and her agent) committed to this, they asked me if there would be a course-record bonus,” he said. “That tells you something.”
Indeed, $2,500 is added to the winner’s prize money for a course record.
Aheza Kiros, the 2011 champion, is one of the three Ethiopians likely to challenge for this year’s title. The other two are Sule Utura, who won at Bix last weekend, and Buzunesh Deba, the Bix runner-up and spring winner of a major 12K race in Spokane, Wash.
On the men’s side, Keflezighi and Hall, who ran a sub 2:05 marathon in Boston two years ago, will have their hands full with East African runners. Because of visa problems, Stanley Biwott of Kenya won’t be here to defend his 2012 title but countrymen Micah Kogo (the 2011 champ), Emmanuel Mutai (the London Marathon record holder at 2:04:40), Stephen Kipkosgei-Kibet (the 2012 runner-up) and Silas Kipruto (a two-time Bix winner who was runner-up last weekend) are all capable of winning.
Other challengers include Atsedu Tsegay and Dino Sefir of Ethiopia, and Mykola Labovsky of Ukraine.
“Meb still has the competitive fire,” Barthlow said. “Don’t write him off yet.”
Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at: