The Mystique Of Meb Keflezighi

Tenacity, intelligence and toughness helped Meb Keflezighi win the Boston Marathon.

In a sport that constantly pits risk against reward, Meb Keflezighi has made a career of cashing in when the stakes are highest.

Heading into April’s Boston Marathon, few experts, analysts or even fellow runners gave Keflezighi a shot at winning the 118th annual Patriot’s Day race. The field included half a dozen men with 26.2-mile personal bests more than three minutes faster than his own. Plus, Keflezighi had never finished higher than third in his two previous attempts in Boston. Given the fact that he was about to turn 39 and had struggled to a 2:23:46 finish in his previous marathon in New York last fall, there was no indication April 21 was going to be such a historic day for Keflezighi.

But none of that mattered to the characteristically stoic Keflezighi. Running with a two-fold purpose of fulfilling his dream of winning the Boston Marathon and helping Boston and the entire country avenge the horrors of the 2013 race, Keflezighi ran away from the field early on and fended off a late charge from Kenya’s Wilson Chebet to break the tape on Boylston Street in a personal best 2 hours, 8 minutes and 37 seconds.

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While his emotional victory came as a surprise to some on a day when many were desperate for an American victory, a confident Keflezighi went to the start line fit, motivated by the events of the previous year’s tragedies and with a track record at championship-style races that let him know he could compete with anyone in the field.

“For me, winning the Boston Marathon was bigger than the Olympics, bigger than anything I’ve done in my career,” says Keflezighi, who became the first American male to win the race since 1983. “A lot of people had written me off two weeks shy of my 39th birthday—some people thought I was too old—but there’s always exceptions. But for me, I had my own purpose, my own motivation.”

While most runners decried the terrorist bombing acts of 2013 in the days prior to this year’s race, the ever-earnest Keflezighi took it to heart. In the days before the race, Keflezighi met with the family of Martin Richard, the 8-year-old boy killed while watching last year’s race. And he ran with the names of Richard and the three other people who were killed by the suspects scrawled on his corners of his race bib.

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A native of Eritrea, Keflezighi is the embodiment of the American dream. He and his family emigrated to the U.S. as refugees from their war-torn homeland in 1987, and he’s never stopped trying to show his gratitude for the many opportunities his new life has given him.

That was never more evident than in Boston. In what was one of the most high-profile marathons ever run, Keflezighi, with an Olympic silver medal and a New York City Marathon title under his belt, once again ran with supreme courage and conviction.

“America needed me and I had to rise to the occasion,” says Keflezighi, who lives in San Diego. “To be an American and to win it, to take the disaster of last year and turn that into something positive, it couldn’t have been scripted any better. To say I won, not only one of the most prestigious marathons in the world but against the best field ever for Boston, is very special.”

In a carefully orchestrated time trial with pacemakers on a pancake-flat course like Chicago, London or Berlin, Keflezighi isn’t likely to win against a group of runners with PRs in the 2:03 to 2:05 range. But in an every-man-for-himself race like New York, Boston or the Olympic Games, he’s proven time and time again that he’s one of the best in the business. The true embodiment of a warrior in racing flats, Keflezighi once again silenced the critics and surprised the doubters in Boston, cementing his status as one of the grittiest pure racers in modern-day marathoning.

“Meb is one of the toughest runners I know. The guy can just grind, man,” says Abdi Abdirahman, a four-time U.S. Olympian who has been competing against Keflezighi since college in the late 1990s. “He uses every little ounce in his body. To beat Meb, you have to have your best day. Sometimes I felt I was faster than him and he would still find a way to win.”

Abdirahman says Keflezighi has an uncanny ability to almost always race to the level of his fitness—and sometimes well above it. Abdirahman witnessed it firsthand in Boston, where he eventually finished 16th in 2:16:06. Keflezighi made a break near the 8-mile aid station and only Josphat Boit, an occasional training partner in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., went with him. After pulling away with a big lead, Keflezighi dropped Boit and ran the final 13 miles alone, holding on with all the strength he could muster to stave off Chebet.

“I’ve learned there are three things you don’t do with Meb: Number one, you don’t count him out. Ever,” Abdirahman says emphatically. “Second, you don’t underestimate him. And three, you don’t tell him there’s something he can’t do. Meb doesn’t see himself as an underdog. He sees himself as one of the best. A lot of people don’t appreciate his passion and his competitiveness.

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‘I Never Count Myself Out’

At the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon in New York, Keflezighi, then 33, suffered a stress fracture in his hip and finished a disappointing eighth, failing to qualify for what would have been his third Olympic team. He was in so much pain after the race that he was crawling around his Manhattan hotel room, unable to walk. Having already achieved enormous success in his career, he could have retired and never raced again. In fact, many close to him thought he should.

But that’s never been what Keflezighi is all about. He spent much of the next 16 months healing and rehabbing the worst injury of his career before returning to competition with a half-marathon personal best of 1:01:00 at Rock ‘n’ Roll San Jose in 2009. Despite his stellar solo performance, Keflezighi was not considered among the favorites at the New York City Marathon two months later—his first attempt at the marathon since the trials race a year earlier. Still, it didn’t stop him from breaking away from a loaded field that included four-time Boston champion Robert Cheruiyot and James Kwambai of Kenya, American Ryan Hall and two-time NYC champion Marilson Gomes dos Santos of Brazil to become the first American winner of the race since 1982 in a personal best of 2:09:15.

“I never count myself out,” Keflezighi says. “For me it was not a surprise to win a medal in Athens. In New York, I thought I could have won it a couple times, but I made some mistakes. But in 2009 I just ran a personal best in San Jose, I felt phenomenal and I finally won it.”

Fast forward to the London Olympics in August of 2012. Keflezighi, who beat a heavily favored Hall to score an upset at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Houston seven months earlier, took the starting line as the only Olympic marathon medalist in the field. Still, the race announcer failed to mention the 2004 silver medalist in Athens in the pre-race introductions—a fact that didn’t go unnoticed by Keflezighi.

“At the Olympic Games, the announcer made the decision to count me out,” Keflezighi recalls of being slighted. “But I take pride in not counting myself out when others count me out. I put my body through a lot, even if it means I end up in a wheelchair afterward like I did after that race. After Boston [in 2010] I was out of commission for two weeks and needed a wheelchair for my travels. I’ve pushed my body above and beyond.”

One of the byproducts of Keflezighi getting the most out of himself every time he steps on the starting line is pushing his competition to a higher level. With 22 U.S. titles under his belt, Keflezighi has found himself on top of the podium more times than most—but even when he’s not the first across the finish line, others benefit from his tenacity, intelligence and toughness.

“You knew if he was there that he was going to run smart and run as hard as he possibly could,” says Alan Culpepper, who finished five seconds ahead of Keflezighi to win the 2004 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon in Birmingham, Ala. “Without question, Meb always brought the best out of me for some reason. What always impressed me most was his confidence in himself and in his preparation and his abilities.”

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Although they both ran the 10,000-meter run for the U.S. at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Culpepper says he first took note of Keflezighi’s confidence before the 2004 Olympics, when the American marathon team (which also included Dan Browne) spent three weeks running together every day at a training camp in Crete.

“He just had a different approach than everyone else. He was there to medal,” says Culpepper, who finished 12th in the marathon in Athens. “It wasn’t an overconfidence, it was just like, ‘This is why I’m here,’ and that attitude really helped me because it was something that I struggled with at the time.”

‘Third Time Was The Charm’

Among those who know best what makes Keflezighi tick is his longtime mentor Bob Larsen, the former UCLA coach who has guided him since his college days. Larsen, who, at 75, still rides a bike alongside Keflezighi during some of his long tempo runs, says Keflezighi’s work ethic, focus and attention to detail make him stand out from the dozens of Olympic-level athletes he’s worked with during his coaching career. He says that the intensity Keflezighi brings to everything he does is what has allowed him to perform at a high level for so long.

“I’ve been around the best of the best,” Larsen says, “and you can have something special to say about each one of them, but with Meb, what he brings to the table mentally every single day, year-round, to workouts and races, even when he’s injured, whether it’s workouts, drills, cross-training—whatever he does—he approaches it with his maximum motivation and maximum effort.”

As for his ability to always race at a high level, that’s what makes him extra special, Larsen says.

“The great ones have the ability to rise to the occasion,” Larsen says. “He’s consistently been at his best in the biggest competitions. When the spotlight’s on him, and the brighter the spotlight, the more he is capable of doing. Meb is one of those athletes that finds ways to get a little bit more out of himself in those special occasions.”

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That was never more evident than in Boston on the third Monday in April, when the stakes had never been higher for marathon running in general after what happened on Boylston Street in 2013 or for the aging Keflezighi—whom many had written off as a serious contender last November after a disappointing 23rd-place finish in New York.

But true to form, Keflezighi, who finished third at Boston in 2006 and fifth in 2010, showed once again that when the odds are stacked against him and victory seems improbable, he’s the guy you want to bet on.

“For me, the third time was the charm,” Keflezighi says of his Boston victory. “It was championship style, and I don’t think anyone has been as consistent as me in those types of races.”

This piece first appeared in the June 2014 issue of Competitor magazine. 

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