Last Friday morning in Mammoth Lakes, California, Mebrahtom (Meb) Keflezighi completed the last serious workout of his nearly two decades-long professional running career. It was a six-mile tempo run at 7,000 feet above sea level, a workout that Keflezighi has done dozens of times while training for marathons. He finished in 29 minutes, six seconds; a 4:51 per mile pace, at lung-searing altitude. Which is not bad at all. “No, not bad,’’ said Meb, on the phone later that day. “It’s good.’’ He paused for a beat, and then added, “But it’s not like I used to do.’’
With that admission, Keflezighi—known far and wide as just Meb— let loose a squeaky, self-repeating laugh. When he was much younger, it was a nervous laugh; now it’s the knowing laugh of a man who has seen everything, and then seen everything again. But just a note of innocence remains, echoing in the air.
Meb is 42 years old, far beyond the customary life span of a world class distance runner, yet just 15 months removed from representing the United States at the Olympic Games for the third time (he finished 33rd in Rio, while fighting stomach problems, slipped and fell approaching the finish line, and then did a few push-ups, which was a very Meb thing to do). On Sunday he will run the 41st New York City Marathon, the last competitive marathon of his career.
It is not likely he will win the race, nor likely that he will contend for the victory. His personal best time of 2:08:37 came three years ago in Boston. He’s run that same, six-mile Mammoth tempo run a full minute faster than he ran it last Friday. There’s not much tread left on the tires.
Yet. Yet, yet, yet: The most important performances of Meb’s career were all unexpected to varying degrees. His Olympic marathon silver medal in Athens in 2004. His New York City Marathon in in 2009. Most of all, his emotional win at Boston in 2014, an American racing home first on Boylston Street, one year after the bombings. And to a lesser extent, his fourth-place finish at the London Olympic marathon in 2012, or his run to make his third Olympic team in 2016, second behind Galen Rupp.
He expects upwards of 70 family members and close friends in New York for his last race. But he is planning to race, not to remember. “I’m putting my foot on the line, and I hope to be competitive,’’ says Meb. “I would like to be an athlete one last time. Maybe top ten. To be on the podium (top three) would be huge. But if I’m struggling to hang on, or I get dropped… I might do some high-fiving [with the spectators]. I’m a person who likes to stay in the moment when I’m racing. But I know it will be emotional.’’
We are a culture of lists and rankings. The top this and the bottom that. Some lists are fun and some are mean. If you make a list of the best American marathoners in history, Meb is on that list. He is high on that list. But the sport has evolved so much over time, and the event—the marathon—is so capricious as to make hard comparisons almost impossible. Frank Shorter won two Olympic medals and his gold in 1972 helped launch a cultural phenomenon. (But he ran before the true onslaught of East African runners). Ryan Hall and Khalid Khannouchi were the fastest, although Rupp might get them, yet. (But Hall never won a major race; Khanoucchi won four). Bill Rodgers was a machine. Nobody left more on the course than Alberto Salazar. Long ago, there were Buddy Edelin and Johnny Kelley. If you want to put them in order, have at it. You will be right. And wrong. It’s a pointless exercise.
Meb Keflezighi is the only runner—male or female—in history, to have won the New York City Marathon, the Boston Marathon and an Olympic marathon medal. That stat is both awesome and quirky. But it’s more awesome than quirky. His Boston win was among the most uplifting moments in running history. His Olympic medal was the first by an American male in the marathon since Shorter’s silver in 1976, and one of the watershed moments on the timeline that traces the restoration of U.S. significance in worldwide distance running. He stands alongside Shorter as the most important marathon runner in American history.
But that is a simple sentence, and this is not a simple story. Meb’s career is much more than his resume. It is a long hike up the steep hillside of tolerance in America, a moment of warm acceptance at the top and then a newly formed fear of the slippery slope that lies on the other side in today’s U.S.A. Meb’s family—his parents and their 11 children—came to the United States in 1987, refugees from a terrible civil war in Eritrea. Meb was 12 years old. He had never run a race in his life (this was to become an important point), but he found his expression in the sport and eventually earned a scholarship to UCLA. The man who recruited him then, and has coached him ever since, is Bob Larsen. When I wrote a profile of Meb for Sports Illustrated in 2005, this is what Larsen said about his decision to recruit Meb: “I liked the way he moved. And look at his family. These are tough people.’’ Eight of Meb’s 10 siblings have earned college degrees; four have advanced degrees.
Meb became a U.S. citizen in 1998, at the age of 23, and immediately was a contender for national titles. He made the first of his four Olympic teams in 2000, in the 10,000 meters, and over the next decade and a half would be vital to the rise of U.S. distance running. But for many years, controversy simmered beneath the surface. I wrote this in 2005: “…. some Americans won’t credit a domestic distance running rebirth to a man born in Africa.”
The running community was slow to embrace Meb as one of its own. The phrase, “American-born,’’ seeped into running journalism, as a way of distinguishing between those born on U.S. soil, and those who moved here from somewhere else, even though the country is founded on the principle that that distinction should not exist. (I was guilty of making this distinction, in print, on numerous occasions. Shame on me. But Keflezighi deserved this treatment less than most immigrant runners; Where Bernard Lagat was formed by the Kenyan system and Khannouchi at least in part by the Moroccan system, Keflezighi ran only in the U.S. He was a product of the American system).
Again, here, from 2005: “Meb has my respect as a great runner, a great person and a great American,’’ says U.S. runner Dathan Ritzenhein [then] 23. “But I’m sure it’s hard for some people to differentiate between Meb and the East African runners who seem to dominate the spoort.’’
Says Keflezighi: “All because my name is difficult to pronounce.’’
Keflezighi endured, not only with his body, but with his spirit. He is a relentlessly kind soul. To know Meb is to like him; there is no other reasonable response. But knowing takes time. His ’04 silver medal in the marathon in Athens was transcendent (as was Deena Kastor’s bronze), and Meb flew home to California ebullient. “I passed over New York and Los Angeles and I thought, ‘The world is a big place’ and I’m the second-best marathon runner,’’ says Meb now. But there were no television appearances and no sudden rise to celebrity status. Shorter didn’t call to congratulate him, which stung at the time.
But Meb is a marathoner, a vocation that requires toughness and patience. He wore down intolerance, mile after mile. In 2009, New York cheered him as New York will, when he became the first American to win that race in 27 years. It came one year after he suffered a broken hip in the 2008 Olympic marathon trials, which also had taken place in New York City (and in which Keflezighi’s occasional training partner, Ryan Shay, died of a heart attack during the race). Four years later, in 2013, Meb was near the finish line in Boston when the bombs went off. A year later he ran Boston with a racing bib on which he had written in tiny letters the names of those killed in the bombing and, unexpectedly, he won the race.
On the day after the race, Meb recalls seeing a story on the internet. “The headline was, HE’S ONE OF US,’’ says Meb. At least that is the way he remembers it. He’s quite certain of the sentiment. For a long time, some people thought Meb wasn’t American enough, when in fact he was everything that American aspires to be. Or once aspired to be.
In 2014, I wrote a column endorsing Meb as SI’s Sportsperson of the Year. (He didn’t win). This is part of what I wrote: “Slowly, over the years, Keflezighi has gained every ounce of respect that he deserves, as a great American runner. And he deserves a lot. We are a nation of immigrants, built on the dreams of those who would leave their homes to seek better lives here. It is what we are as a nation.”
Meb does not strut, but he takes enormous pride in what he has done for—and in—his adopted home. “I did all my running in the United States,’’ he says. And even with his historic wins, one of his most powerful memories is his fourth-place finish at the London Olympic Marathon in 2012, another stunningly strong performance. He felt lousy that day, and might have dropped out under different circumstances. “But I was representing the United States,’’ says Meb. “That name was on my jersey. I wasn’t even thinking about winning anything, I just wanted to keep running. And then I started passing people.’’
There’s something else about Meb’s career. “I did it cleanly,’’ he said. And while we never really know what somebody did or did not do in their bathroom, there’s never been a hint of suspicion about Meb. Perhaps there is value in running to win, but never so fast that performances set off alarms. Meb has always been, to his marrow, a man who races other men and not stopwatches. After Sunday, he says, he will always run. He likes pacing slower runners to their competitive best. “I might drop into a local 10k and push it a little,’’ he says. But the serious training is finished. He will remain a visible ambassador for his sport, which is both a labor of love and economics, as there are sponsors to keep happy. The running community will embrace him in any role.
Yet he also carries a fresh uneasiness. After a lifetime spent earning America’s acceptance, Meb understands that his adopted home is on the precipice of becoming a far less welcoming land. Eritrea is not on the list of countries in the Trump administration’s proposed travel ban, but there is intolerance in the air. “You can’t help but think about it,’’ says Meb. “America is the land of opportunity, but it seems like we’re going backward instead of forward. That is difficult to handle.’’
It is worthwhile to watch him run on Sunday, whether in first place or 50th, whether grimacing to stay with the leaders or joyfully slapping hands with spectators among the fallen leaves in Central Park.
“I have a good story to tell,’’ says Meb. “My story is the American dream.’’ It is important to appreciate the moment, not just because of what Meb has done, but for who he is, and what he tells us about ourselves.