As Nick Arciniaga crossed the finish line of the 2014 Boston Marathon, the rest of the nation was celebrating Meb Keflezighi's victory just one year after the twin bombings at the finish line in 2013. For his part, Arciniaga nearly ran a personal best that day -- finishing seventh in 2 hours, 11 minutes, 47 seconds -- and was the next American finisher after Keflezighi.
Arciniaga found out as he headed toward the medical tent that Keflezighi had won, and that fellow American Shalane Flanagan had finished seventh on the women's side in 2:22:02. He was happy for Flanagan, a Massachusetts native, until he saw Flanagan's disappointment over not winning after having been vocal about wanting a victory.
"I felt bad that she had run so fast, but rabbited the whole thing for the African women," Arciniaga recalled. "That put into perspective that seventh place is decent for somebody like me, but if I want to be at the next level I can't be too thrilled with it."
Arciniaga is back in Boston this year, taking the first step toward that next level and the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Arciniaga's first shot at making an Olympic team came in 2008, but he finished a distant 17th at the trials that year. Over the next four years, he improved his personal best from 2:16:13 to 2:11.30, was the top American at the 2008 Boston Marathon, and represented the U.S. at the 2011 IAAF World Championships.
He finished eighth at the 2012 trials, though, unable to chase down a lead pack that included Keflezighi, Ryan Hall, Abdi Abdirahman and Dathan Ritzenhein.
Arciniaga, Keflezighi and Ritzenhein are the only Americans to show true flashes of success since 2013, however, leading some to view them as the top contenders for the three U.S. spots available in Rio.
"The marathon is a brutal event," Arciniaga said. "The fall-off is pretty big if you look at the names from the top 10 in 2007 to 2012, and only about four carry over well. The race itself beats people up. I like to include myself in a small group that can handle marathons year after year."
Keflezighi, who will be 40 at the 2016 trials in Los Angeles, is the only true favorite to make the U.S. team for 2016, barring injury or another setback. A healthy Ritzenhein could also be in the mix, and then a long list of names will be in contention for that third spot.
"There's a lot of deep options that have run anywhere from 2:07 to 2:12 that have a really good shot of making this next team," Arciniaga said. "There's also guys that are off their game, but you never know, could be there with the leaders. It's up for grabs."
Arciniaga was 10th overall at the 2014 New York City Marathon in cold and windy conditions, and electing to race Boston this year puts him on another course where tactical racing will be important, as opposed to racing a time-trial style race. He sees the benefit in that leading up to 2016.
"These are courses that can have hot, cold or windy conditions on any given day," Arciniaga said. "I like to test myself with the leaders and run with them for as long as I can until I get closer to the finish line. I want to get more experience on the international level, and that begins by cracking the top five before I can think of finishing on the podium or fulfill the dream of winning a race."
Arciniaga has set his sights on a top-five finish on Boylston Street on Monday, but would not be disappointed with a top-10 placing. He moved from 15th to seventh over the final five miles of last year's race, and in order to improve on that he's focused on hill running in order to finish stronger.
"I lost two minutes on Wilson Chebet from Mile 16 to Mile 21 on top of Heartbreak Hill, and he almost caught up to Meb," Arciniaga said. "I've been focusing on a lot of hills with a lot of uphill training, and so I'm hoping it pays off."
Classic U.S. marathoner
Arciniaga has developed into a pure marathoner after running as fast as 14:23 in the 5,000 meters while in college at Cal-State Fullerton. He quickly made the jump to 26.2 miles after graduating in 2006 and debuted in Chicago later that fall. He's about to embark on his 16th.
His career path is similar to that of an American great like Dick Beardsley -- who finished second to Alberto Salazar in the Duel in the Sun in Boston in 1982 -- in that they did not have much success until they tested themselves in the marathon, and then were not afraid to race the distance often.
"Once I ran Boston, I started reading up on guys like Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers and Dick Beardsley and how much they raced over a short amount of time in their careers," Arciniaga said. "I strive to be in that same realm as an athlete."
Last year, Arciniaga competed in 19 races, including three marathons, a 29th-place finish at the U.S. Cross-Country Championships, the Bay to Breakers 12K, and a variety of local trail and road races in Flagstaff, Arizona.
"It's something where I kind of like to use the races as workouts to elevate my fitness going into bigger races like New York and Boston last year," Arciniaga said.
Arciniaga is on the cusp of a career breakthrough, looking for a strong performance in Boston like the rugged racers of the 1970s and '80s, and ready to peak in L.A. when the trials arrive.