The trailblazer has nothing to lose as he guns for another Olympic medal.
Mebrahtom Keflezighi’s a nice guy, but he’s got teeth. Sharpening them was a prerequisite for any post-collegiate elite runner hoping to reverse the abysmal state of U.S. distance running in 2000. Keflezighi, known affectionately by family and fans as Meb, proved that American men could compete on a world-class level again.
“When Joe Vigil and I put the Mammoth Track Club together [in 2001], we had Meb and Deena [Kastor] as our leaders,” says Bob Larsen, Keflezighi’s coach for the past 18 years and the now-retired cross-country and track and field coach at UCLA. “They showed the path. People got confident again and said, ‘If they can train really hard at altitude, compete internationally and win Olympic medals, so can we.’ That growth is still taking place.”
Over the last four years, the Olympic marathon silver medalist has thrived on shocking people—Keflezighi’s risen from the doldrums of a career-jeopardizing injury, cheated retirement and redefined the capabilities of a 37-year-old elite runner.
“Talented doesn’t win, but hard work does,” says the Eritrean-born Keflezighi, who moved to San Diego with his family in 1987 and became a naturalized citizen in 1998. “I like to under promise and over deliver—it’s my thing. I let the legs do the talking, not my lips.”
Keflezighi surprised everyone in January when he became the oldest Olympic marathon trials champion in U.S. history, a feat he accomplished just 69 days after finishing sixth at the ING New York City Marathon in a then-personal best 2:09:13 (he shaved five seconds off that time at the marathon trials). Although he pulled off a similar tour de force in 2004, when he earned silver at the Athens Games and finished second in New York 70 days later, he was eight years younger then, and the years of repetitive training stress coupled with the unpredictable and often-cruel nature of the marathon made the attempt a risky endeavor.
“The marathon is a race of attrition and sometimes you’re going to make some mistakes,” says Keflezighi, who left a Breathe Right nose strip in his left racing flat during the 2011 New York City Marathon, causing a blister that became severely infected. The accident forced him to take three weeks off from training, threatening his chances of making his third Olympic team. Watching the Olympic marathon on the couch at his Mammoth Lakes, Calif., home with his wife and three young daughters wasn’t in the game plan for Keflezighi, who did just that for the Beijing Games.
At the 2008 Olympic marathon trials in New York—a coming-of-age race for young bucks such as Ryan Hall and Dathan Ritzenhein, and a changing-of-the-guard event for veterans such as Alan Culpepper and Khalid Khannouchi—Keflezighi suffered from a fractured pelvis, a potentially career-ending diagnosis that kept him out of the Olympics.
“I saw him crawl on all fours in the hotel room after [the 2008 Olympic marathon trials], and it was scary—I’d never seen Meb that way,” recalls Yordanos, Meb’s wife. “I said to him, ‘We both have our degrees and we can find another way to make a living.’ We prayed really hard and talked a lot. Meb told me that he’d been given a talent and needed to fulfill his purpose. Since then, we’ve never had that discussion again.”
Keflezighi crawled his way back to health, seeing a host of sports medicine doctors and experts, and enduring intensive therapy. “He’s the best I’ve seen at dealing with injuries,” says Larsen. “It’s so boring to run in the swimming pool and to get massage therapy and do all this extra stuff without knowing, at that age, if he’d be able to come back. I’ve never seen that amount of dedication when [Meb] didn’t need it. He already had the silver medal and a huge career. I told him nobody would blame him if he wanted to hang it up.”
The persistence paid off. Keflezighi’s comeback race was the 2009 New York City Marathon. Part poetic justice and all vindication, he became the first American to win the race in 27 years, an effort that earned him an appearance on the “Late Show with David Letterman” and atop a float at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Keflezighi says his upbringing helps him push through the pain, and his family inspires him to put it all on the line. Helping Keflezighi succeed is a family affair—Meb’s brother, Merhawi, is his manager, and Yordanos quit her job as a premier client manager for Bank of America in 2006, when the couple decided to start a family and move from San Diego to Mammoth Lakes, Calif., so Meb could live and train full time at altitude. She cares for the children, manages the schedules and even researches the competition and racecourses Meb will face. “I’m the one who’s usually stressed—is [Meb] getting his therapy, is he sleeping?” reveals Yordanos. “He’s the one who relaxes me. There’s such a quiet, strong confidence about him; he has a spiritually calm side to him.”
Sacrificing to attain greatness is a Keflezighi family motto. Russom Keflezighi, Meb’s father, who supported rebels fighting for independence in Eritrea in the early 80s, fled the family’s war-torn village when Meb was 5 years old to seek a better life for his wife and 11 children. He walked 100 miles to the Sudanese border, working his way to Italy, where the family eventually reunited and lived for a short time before immigrating to the U.S.
Larsen jokes that he offered a UCLA distance running scholarship—funds he usually reserved for sprinters and throwers—to Meb because of his family. “I was so impressed with them; 10 brothers and sisters who were great, hardworking students. You could see that the family was really special. They were tough, and living in a small place.”
The kindly, soft-spoken Larsen’s eyes twinkle like a proud grandfather when he speaks of Keflezighi. Their mutual loyalty, respect and deep understanding of one another puts them on the same page; these days, Keflezighi tells Larsen what he needs in terms of training and Larsen controls the reigns, only tugging them lightly to prevent overtraining.
Keflezighi remains characteristically tight-lipped about his preparation for the Olympic marathon this summer, but will say that 15- and 16-mile tempo runs have given him confidence before all of his previous marathons, except the 2012 trials, when an 11-mile tempo had to suffice. “I think the theory that you need 10, 12 or eight weeks of build-up is overrated; 41 days worked for the trials,” he says, laughing. We’ll just have to wait until August to see what his legs will tell us.
This piece first appeared in the April 2012 of Competitor magazine.