This interview originally appeared in METER #1. Take out a subscription at Tracksmith.com to receive future issues of this beautiful magazine. Issue #2 launches at the New York City Marathon, where Meb Keflezighi will be running, in preparation for selection to Rio 2016.
After a decade-long decline, the resurrection of American distance running began to take shape in the fall of 2002. Following successful maiden marathons by Dan Browne at Twin Cities (1st, 2:11:35) and Alan Culpepper in Chicago (6th, 2:09:41, tying Alberto Salazar’s American debut record from New York 1980), the anticipation for American 10,000 meter record holder Meb Keflezighi’s debut in New York City was running sky high.
On a bright but chilly (38°F) Chelsea morning I sat in the catbird seat aboard the NBC lead men’s TV motorcycle as the race entered its critical stage coming off the Queensborough Bridge at mile 16. With the final pace-setter Joseph Kariuki now gone the pack was on edge, crackling with energy. First Avenue stretched ahead with all the history, speed and power it portended.
First to come sweeping off the bridge was the previous year’s third-placer, Rodgers Rop of Kenya. By 66th Street he had five seconds, and the pack was receding like fading motes. This wasn’t some reckless rookie surging away, this was the Boston Marathon champion, he knew what he was doing.
Mile 17 fell in 4:36.
A group consisting Boston runner-up Christopher Cheboiboch, 2:06 South African Gert Thys, and another deb Laban Kipkemboi of Kenya bridged up to Rop, then Meb pushed hard from behind to join the fray. His long-time coach Bob Larsen told me the day before that Meb would go with the pace till First Avenue then decide. Decision made – he was going.
At 1:27:05, amidst a 4:40 18th mile Meb surged to the front.
“I remembered that Salazar had won New York in his debut,” recalled Meb years later. “Maybe I got too emotional.”
Rodgers Rop went on to win that 2002 race in New York to join Bill Rodgers (1978 & `79), Alberto Salazar (1982) and Joseph Chebet (1994) as the only men to win Boston and New York in the same year. Meb took 35 minutes and change for his final 10K. Chilled to the bone, he arrived in ninth place in 2:12:35. Afterwards, his mother Atewash made him swear he would never do THAT again.
“There have only been two times in his career that Meb didn’t follow the plan as laid out,” recalled Meb’s coach Bob Larsen. “New York in his debut, and Boston 2006 when he took off with Ben Maiyo.”
That night I went to dinner in SoHo with BAA press man Jack Fleming (who also ran his debut that day in 3:18). Later, we ended up at Rosie O’Grady’s on Seventh Avenue at 53rd Street, watering hole for the running industry over marathon weekend. Included in the boisterous gathering were Meb and Mark Carrol, the Irishman out of Providence College who had also debuted that morning, running 2:10:54 in sixth position. Then just after midnight I joined Meb for the short walk back to the Hilton Hotel on Sixth.
Along the way Meb could only identify with the disappointment of his ninth place finish and 2:12 time, nearly three full minutes slower than his friend and rival Alan Culpepper had posted the month prior in Chicago. What I reminded him of wasn’t how he finished but how he competed.
“You know what it‘s like to lead the New York City Marathon up First Avenue,“ I said encouragingly. “It doesn’t get any bigger than that. Mark Carroll finished ahead of you, but he didn’t go with the move off the 59th Street Bridge. He doesn’t know that feeling. Your racing instinct was right on the money. You just didn‘t have the mileage to pull off what your heart asked of your body. Believe me, this experience will pay off one day.”
Maybe I was being solicitous to a young athlete whose dauber was down. Or, call me prophetic, because from our 2015 vantage point we can look back on the two most memorable occasions when Meb made my 2002 prediction come true, New York City 2009 when Meb pulled free from four-time Boston Marathon champion Robert Cheruiyot as the pair entered Central Park for the final stages of that race, and even more memorably to last Patriots Day in Boston when a bold move in the first third of the route led him to the first American male victory in the sport’s oldest marathon since 1983.
Mebratom Keflezighi’s journey from war-torn Eritrea to Milan, Italy to San Diego, California to the major winner’s circles of the sport has been retold so many times now it has all but been worn smooth. Meb wrote movingly of it in his own memoir in 2010 with Dick Patrick, Run to Overcome. And that was before his defining win in Boston. But even before Boston 2014 Meb had inched into the craggy shadows cast by names like Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers, or women like Joan Benoit-Samuelson. After Boston he finally reached the sport’s Mount Rushmore, and has since been widely recognized as one of America’s true running legends.
Yet there was a time when Meb wasn’t considered “American enough” for some, even after he won an Olympic medal for his adopted country in 2004 or when he delivered his historic win in New York City in 2009 pointing proudly to the U.S.A. letters emblazoned across his chest as he took his final strides.
“I do have a unique name and an accent,” Meb says as if trying to understand. “So people will ask, ‘where is that from?’ I cannot lie. I was born in Eritrea; that’s a fact. I became an American citizen on July 2, 1998, though I wish it was July 4th. Every day I celebrate that proudly. But people are entitled to their own opinions. Did I want to prove them wrong? Absolutely. But after Boston it all came together. So many immigrants said, ‘thank you for doing it for us. You made us proud to be American’.”
At the highest echelon of sport there are three classifications, winners, champions, and heroes. Every sport is littered with winners, as every competition reduces itself to that distinction. Every sport, too, has its champions, those who win the most important competitions that award precious metal. But every sport hopes to produce a hero or two, men and women who rise above to inspire those who follow.
With the exception of his three U.S. Olympic Trials Marathons (2004, 2008, 2012) there hasn’t been one marathon in Meb Keflezighi’s career where he gone in as the favorite. Some of that has to do with the fact that he only competes in Abbott World Marathon Majors, Olympic Trials and Olympic Games, yet in 2009 in New York City and last year in Boston Meb defied the odds to come away as champion. You could say he’s done more with less than any other 2:08 marathoner in history – especially in a 2:02 marathon world. Lucky, blessed, savvy, however you might want to attribute it, Meb has found a way to surmount expectations and deliver when the stakes are at their highest.
“We excel because my dad told us we have an opportunity that he didn’t have and our relatives in Eritrea didn’t have,” says Meb of himself and his ten siblings. “So don’t waste it. He couldn’t be any blunter than that. And to this day it makes us think. Can you imagine? Sometimes I have to pinch myself. How lucky am I?”
Luck. It is just one letter short of pluck.
“He was one of the best in high school,” recalled his long-time coach, the soft-spoken Bob Larsen, “but he didn’t win the national cross country his senior year (Adam Goucher beat him at Foot Locker). And he never dominated. He was always challenged. But he honed his skills as a competitor at every distance, and he has always surpassed his expected level in top competitions over the years.”
That kind of drive, the kind necessary to succeed at the world-class level isn’t merely a matter of talent. That drive has to be nurtured. For that Meb has Russom and Atewash Keflezighi to thank. Through them their children inherited the understanding that the Land of Opportunity wasn’t simply a public relations trope, or old-world cliché. Russom Keflezighi was the kind of father who made sacrifices reminiscent of America’s early settlers, who then woke his kids up at 4 a.m. to study, who made them work, who knew that such opportunities didn’t wait, but were to be seized.
“My mom never went to school, but we lived close to the capital in Eritrea so we wouldn’t be just farmers,” recounted Meb. “She knew the value of education. Dad, too. He only went to seventh-grade, but he loved school. He used to stand outside under street lamps to study for his tests. That’s how much faith he had.”
With a family full of over-achievers, Meb’s choice of professional running wasn’t predetermined the way it is for many a young Kenyan or Ethiopian looking to surmount poverty. In fact, Meb’s first sporting love was soccer from his several years in Milan, Italy where his dad had emigrated before bringing his family to join him some five years later from Eritrea.
It was as a seventh-grader at Roosevelt Junior High that Meb ran his first timed mile as part of a P.E. class. When the sharp-eyed teacher stopped his watch and saw 5:20, he declared, ‘Hey, we’ve got an Olympian here.’
Meb followed his two older brothers to San Diego High School, helping them secure the CIF (state) team track title his freshman year for coach Ed Ramos before winning individual CIF titles over 1600 and 3200 meters his senior year. Next came four NCAA titles under coach Larsen at UCLA.
After graduating UCLA with a communications degree in 1996, Meb lived at the Olympic Training Center south of San Diego for 2 ½ years working in customer service. Not only to save whatever earnings he might make, but to hedge his bets.
“I always had a backup, insurance,” he says. “Running is something you hoped would come, but we are all one injury away. So even though I had a small Nike contract, if someone were to ask, ‘what have you been doing the last ten years,’ I wanted to be able to say, ‘Hey, I ran, I qualified for the Olympic Trials, I’ve accomplished this and that, but I’ve also been working to fill out my resume.”
In 2001 Meb joined Team USA California, a Running USA backed training group sequestered in Mammoth Lakes, high in the rugged, ski country of the Sierra Mountains. He flourished in this new, high altitude system, taking down the 15 year-old U.S. 10,000 meter record later in that year (27:13).
Looking back from a far distant 2015 his resume is now stuffed with 23 U.S. championships. He has been on three Olympic teams, and has his eye on a fourth in 2016. A member of the 20th century’s final Big Three of American distance running, a trio that included Alan Culpepper and Somali-born Abdi Abdirahman, Meb has not just outlasted his two contemporaries, he has continued to construct a career resume that, to date, has surpassed even that of the next half-generation’s Big Three, Alan Webb, Dathan Ritzenhein, and Ryan Hall. At age 39 there is nothing left to prove, no mountain left to climb.
Not that it was a steady climb to the top by any means. Meb had his moments of doubt and difficulty like everybody else, most famously at the November 2007 U.S. Olympic Team Trials Marathon in New York’s Central Park.
“Oh, most definitely, that was my low point. I had the best summer of racing in my life, and Yordanos said, ‘you’re going to make the Olympic team’. I had more experience, and had never won a marathon in my career. I thought that would be the one, but unfortunately, it didn’t turn out the way I anticipated.”
A hip stress fracture led to a debilitating eighth place finish and a brutal year and a half of rehab which left him questioning the arc of his career. At the same time he and the sport were coping with the profound sadness brought on by the shocking death of his friend Ryan Shay, who died of a heart attack early in the Olympic Trials race in Central Park.
In 2014 in Boston Meb wrote the names of the four bombing victims on his bib before the race. Not because it was going to be a story, but simply to honor them and motivate himself. He had already turned down a very attractive offer from the Los Angeles Marathon which would have made all the sense in the world. After all, Meb was a Southern Californian who graduated from UCLA, was a year away from the master’s division, and with the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon coming to L.A. in 2016, to link up with L.A. and its new CEO Tracy Russell would have been a perfect transitional move. Instead Meb took significantly less in appearance money to return to Boston to try to impart some measure of redemption on Boylston Street, where he’d watched the race in 2013 across the street from where the bombings took place.
“My heart was in Boston. I wanted to be there to win for the people. Sometimes you have to have a bigger cause.”
It took all his previous experience to pull off the win last Patriot’s Day. Knowing he hit the wall in his debut in New York City 2002 kept him from covering Italian Stefano Baldini’s winning move at 37K in Athens Olympics 2004. But his overly caffeinated 2006 start in Boston (3rd in 2:09:56) and his ruptured quad turning onto the Newton Hills in 2010 (still 5th in 2:09:26), and most importantly, helping Meb Foundation supporter David Kahn finish his final mile in 2012 all came together to help him hold off Wilson Chebet last Patriot’s Day.
“I was the grand marshal for the race in 2012. It was a very hot day. I jogged walked and ran the final mile with David, so I knew every inch and every turn. I feel blessed to have had so much success, and I can say my career is 100% complete. I would have been satisfied to be a high school league champion and state champion. And I hoped to be an NCAA champion and maybe get one national championship and maybe one American record. And you hope to make an Olympic team, and maybe get a medal for your country…It’s been an amazing journey.”
New York 2009 was the win of a generation. But Boston 2014 was a win for the ages, for after the horror of 2013’s finish line bombings that took the lives of three people and injured scores more, Meb had not only resurrected the sport, he had re-consecrated hallowed ground, avenged the city, and redeemed every grateful immigrant whose identity had been sullied by the damnable deeds of two immigrant brothers the year before.
On April 20th 2015 he returned to Boston, this time as race champion. He had been home with his wife, Yordanos, and their three young daughters maybe three or four weekends all year since his historic win. That’s the price a champion pays.
“It’s an honor,” he says with evident pride. “Can you imagine? To able to wear bib no. 1 at the Boston Marathon? I earned that bib! Sometimes you have to pinch yourself.”
You can’t try to be the All-American boy next door. It is either in you or it’s not.