There’s a charming and beautiful symmetry to next month’s New York City Marathon being the final race for heralded American distance runner Meb Keflezighi. It’s his 26th time running 26.2 miles. And the 42-year-old will poetically run his final 42 kilometers where it all began—back in New York where he ran his first marathon in 2002.
When he crosses the finish line, it will bring an end to a remarkable career that spanned two decades at the highest levels of the sport. Along the way, he returned the U.S. to the Olympic marathon podium, set some records and helped heal a wounded city. He remains the only runner in history to win an Olympic medal and victories at the New York and Boston marathons.
It’s rare for a distance runner to permeate the mainstream sports culture. But Keflezighi did, reaching peak popularity with a victory at the 2014 Boston Marathon one year after the horrific bombings.
“I knew that’s when things were going to change,” Keflezighi says. “I knew what that race meant to my country and the people of Boston.”
He was right—everything changed. That’s when he emerged from the obscurity of an often-forgotten sport and was introduced to America as “Meb.”
One Final Race
Keflezighi has no illusions about what he’s facing in New York on Nov. 5. He’s not treating it like a farewell tour. He fully intends to blow past the roses rather than stop to smell them. But he’s also realistic. His body is far different than the one that claimed four NCAA championships at UCLA in the mid ’90s.
“Honestly, I tell people that it’s just another race,” he says. “I’ve accomplished what I wanted to accomplish in my career. But I still have to get to the end. And the sooner I get there, the more pleasant it will be. If I can finish in the top 10, I’ll be happy. If I finish top three, even better.”
Not only will New York bring finality to his career, it will be an opportunity to vent some building pressure. Since his announcement several months ago that it would be his final marathon, the anticipation has been mounting. And for that reason, he’s anxious to just get going.
“Honestly, it can’t come fast enough,” he says. “People know it’s my last one. I want it to be over. They don’t. It’s been a lot of pressure over the last 27 years—a lot of weight on the shoulders internally and externally.
“I’m pretty sure it will be emotional. But my focus is still 26.2 and we’ll see what I can do. It would be nice to win it, but I won’t kid myself. It’s harder than it’s ever been before.”
An Unmatched Legacy
Any conversation about Keflezighi’s legacy has to begin with Boston in 2014. It was the win the city—and country—needed following the bombings in 2013 that killed three, maimed dozens and injured hundreds more. America was tuning in. And Keflezighi gave the nation something to cheer for.
With the names of the three deceased and a police officer killed by the bombing suspects written on his race bib, Keflezighi mounted an effort for the ages—becoming the first American to tear the tape on Boylston Street since Lisa Larsen Weidenbach (now Rainsberger) in 1985. Greg Meyer was the last man in 1983.
“That was the moment he transcended the sport,” says running historian Ryan Lamppa. “Certainly, his silver medal [in 2004] and his New York victory [in 2009] put him on the map to some degree. But people were paying attention to Boston that year. And when people saw it, it was like ‘Whoa! An American won Boston?’ That’s when people started to know the name Meb.”
With a personal best of 2:08:37—which still remains his fastest 26.2—Keflezighi outsmarted an international field with far superior marathon credentials. But none of that mattered on April 21, 2014—Patriots’ Day.
Keflezighi pushed out hard and fast—building as much as an 80-second lead with less than 9 miles to go. By the time the chase group began to make its move, Keflezighi’s lead was too much to overcome and he held off Wilson Chebet (Kenya, 2:08:48) and Franklin Chepkwony (Kenya, 2:08:50).
“I can take you through every step, but it would take about 2 hours and 8 minutes,” he says with an ear-to-ear grin, adding that “99.9 percent of the time people make that move, they are going to get caught. But I used tactics and positive thinking. Whatever happens, happens. I’m going to go for it. If I get caught, I get caught. But I’m going to make you earn it.”
Keflezighi’s three major achievements—Athens, New York and Boston—all came in milestone fashion. His silver in Athens was the first marathon medal by an American man since Frank Shorter’s silver in 1976. And his 2009 New York win the first from an American since 1982.
“The guy finds a way to rise to the occasion,” Lamppa says. “That’s what great athletes do. Be it Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky and the like. His legacy is one of not only great moments, but he also did it in his 20s, 30s and even 40s. That’s a testament to his dedication and his motivation. In totality, I think he’s the greatest American distance runner ever.”
The Next Chapter
Spoiler alert: A year from now, you’re not going to see Keflezighi glued to a couch, 90 pounds heavier and plowing through pints of Haagen-Dazs. Yes, he’s still going to run. More than likely he’ll continue to pace races and half marathons, which he’s done regularly since becoming the Vice President of Running for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series in 2014. He might even dabble in coaching.
But charity will always be at the vanguard of his to-do list. His humble and sometimes horrific beginning as an East African refugee are well-documented. The devout Christian recently spent two months in his native country of Eritrea, where he brought his three daughters so they could have a better understanding of their roots.
“You can say it to them,” he says, “but you have to live it to fully understand it. God has a plan for me. I just have to be nice and surround myself with good people, and the rest He will take care of for me. All of the blessings He has given to me. I didn’t plan them. My mom always says a person thinks of it, and God finishes it. And as an immigrant, for me to accomplish what I have, it’s only natural to think about what you can do for others.”
Keflezighi’s immediate plan after New York will be recovery. He’s spoken frequently about the toll a marathon takes on the body. But knowing he doesn’t have to worry about marathon No. 27 is also a blessing unto itself.
He recognizes the career he’s had and the lives he’s touched. That’s an appreciation that will not change in retirement.
“Sports are a beautiful thing,” he says. “It helps you set goals. It helps with time management. It helps with discipline. It helps with self-esteem and a sense of accomplishment. There are so many great things about sports and as much as I can, I want to give back.”
If you know anything about Meb, this shouldn’t surprise you.
The Best of Meb
Personal records from a remarkable career…
Marathon: 2:08:37/Boston Marathon in 2014/4:54 per mile
Half Marathon: 61:00/Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon San Jose in 2009/4:42 per mile
10K: 27:13/Stanford Invitational in 2001/4:22 per mile
5K: 13:11/Belgium Track Meet in 2000/4:14 per mile
Meb’s Top 5
Highlight moments according to the man himself…
- Winning the Boston Marathon in 2014. “A gold medal at the Olympics wouldn’t have topped that one.”
- Winning the New York City Marathon in 2009. “Considering I ran my first marathon there (in 2002) that was a personal gratification for me.”
- Winning a silver medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. “Most people would put that at the top because it’s the Olympics. But Boston will always be No. 1. It’s probably a wash between winning New York and the medal for No. 2.”
- Setting the American record in the 10,000 meters (27:13.98 held from 2001 to 2010; Galen Rupp ran 26:44:36 in 2014). “That will always be a special record for me.”
- Winning four NCAA titles while at UCLA. “In my roots, I’m a cross-country runner. Winning that was very special.”