On that bright but chilly (38°F) November morning, I had the catbird seat aboard the NBC lead men’s TV motorcycle as the 2002 New York City Marathon entered its critical stage coming off the Queensboro Bridge at mile 16. The final pace-setter, the metronomic Joseph Kariuki of Kenya, had just pulled off leaving the pack edgy, crackling with energy as Manhattan’s First Avenue stretched ahead like a provocation with all the history, speed, and power it portended. Amidst the lead group ran marathon debutant Meb Keflezighi, the U.S. record holder at 10,000 meters (27:13). The day before Meb’s long-time coach Bob Larsen told me Meb would go with the pace until First Avenue then decide what to do.
The resurrection of American distance running had begun to take shape in that fall of 2002. Following successful maiden marathons by Dan Browne at Twin Cities (1st, 2:11:35) then Alan Culpepper in Chicago (6th, 2:09:41, tying Alberto Salazar’s American debut record from New York 1980) the anticipation for Meb’s debut in New York City was running sky high.
Sweeping off the bridge first sped Rodgers Rop of Kenya, third in NYC the year before, and reigning Boston Marathon champion. By 66th Street Rop had a five-second gap, leaving remnants of the pack receding like fading dust motes. Mile 17 fell in 4:36.
Realizing the danger, Boston runner-up Christopher Cheboiboch, 2:06:33 South African Gert Thys, and Kenyan deb Laban Kipkemboi bridged up to cover Rop’s move. And then Meb came rushing up hard from behind to join the fray. Decision made! He was going! The crowd bellowed its approval. Next, amidst a 4:40 18th mile, Meb surged to the front, not satisfied just to answer, he was anxious to dictate policy.
“I remembered that Salazar had won New York in his debut,” recalled Meb years later. “And maybe I got too emotional.”
Rodgers Rop went on to win that 2002 race in New York in 2:08:07 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 (in 2011 Geoffrey Mutai would join the club).
Meb took a full 35 minutes and change for his final 10K (5:40/mi. pace). Chilled to the bone, he arrived in ninth place in 2:12:35. Afterwards, his mother Awetash made him swear he would never do THAT again.
That night I went to dinner in SoHo with BAA press man (now COO) Jack Fleming, who had also run 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 Carroll, the Irishman out of Providence College (now Dir. of Track & Cross Country at Drake University) 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 Avenue.
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 coming 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 spirits were down. Or, call me prophetic, because from our distant vantage point we can look back on three celebrated occasions when Meb made my 2002 prediction come true.
First, in Athens, Greece 2004, Meb stood on the Olympic podium with a silver medal draped around his neck, the first such Olympic Marathon hardware worn by an American man since Frank Shorter bore silver in Montreal 1976. Five years later in New York City, Meb pulled free from four-time Boston Marathon champion Robert Cheruiyot of Kenya as the pair entered Central Park at 90th Street for the final stages of that race. With his 2:09:15 clocking, Keflezighi became the first American to win in NYC since Al Salazar completed his hat trick in 1982.
Then, even more memorably on Patriots Day 2014 in Boston, a bold move in the first third of the route led Meb to perhaps the most emotionally satisfying marathon win in American history, as once again he ended an American dry spell that had lasted since Greg Meyer’s win in 1983. But more importantly, he redeemed the finish line for the city, the sport, and every thankful American immigrant after the cruel bombings of the year before.
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 2010 memoir Run to Overcome with Dick Patrick. 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, women like Joan Benoit-Samuelson. After Boston, he finally reached the sport’s Mount Rushmore, recognized widely 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, whose exploits live on well beyond their years.
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 went 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 2014 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 2:03 marathon world. Lucky, blessed, savvy, however you might want to attribute it, Meb has found a way to surmount expectations, overcome adversity (especially after the 2008 Olympic Trials Marathon) and deliver when the stakes were 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 nine 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.
The man who has traveled the long road from Eritrea to Italy and now California will call on all his luck and what we know to be his family’s determined pluck as he embarks on his final 26-miler this Sunday morning. Here is wishing him a sweet journey home.
(Thanks to Matt Taylor and Tracksmith for permission to re-publish this story from 2015 Meter Journal)