MEB: WHAT’S IN A NAME?

Pride, rue, chagrin, the emotions any of us feel about our name can run a wide gamut. For instance, my name is Toni, but as you notice, it ends in an I, rather than a Y. That’s because in Poland, birthplace of my mother, they spell Anthony as Antoni, hence, Toni, not Tony (though I answer to both).

Since I reached my majority, no big deal, but as a young boy growing up in the American Midwest, having what my peers considered a girl’s name often proved challenging. In fact, it’s one reason why I started to run.  It was easier and less painful than fighting every time some chump chided me with my ‘girl’s name’ anomaly.

Which brings us to Meb Keflezighi, the American marathon star who was surprised  by several hundred friends, relatives, and fans Monday night (November 13, 2017) at San Diego’s Liberty Station two weeks after he concluded his remarkable career with an 11th place finish at the TCS New York City Marathon at age 42. The retirement  celebration also raised funds benefiting the MEB Foundation, which promotes health education and fitness programs for youth.

Meb arriving with wife Yordanos (photo by Bob Betancourt)

The evening brought into relief once again just how far the man has come. Not just through the long journey from war-torn Eritrea to Italy and finally America as a 12 year-old boy, or on the many ups and downs of his competitive career, from his days at San Diego High to UCLA all the way to the Mount Rushmore of American distance running. No, I mean simply in terms of culture.

Like the name Meb for instance.  The first time you hear it, sounds more like a distance than a name.

“How far did you run today?”

“I got in about sixteen Mebs, and threw in a couple of Hawis for good measure.”

But no matter the obstacle, be it cultural or sporting, Meb always found a way to surmount it and then triumph, while including many, many others in those triumphs along the way. Continue reading

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RELENTLESS SHALANE WINS IN NEW YORK CITY

Like many a Boston Marathon finisher, Shalane Flanagan walked downstairs with a tender tred after the race. The Marblehead, Massachusetts native had attacked the old course with a willful intention on Patriot’s Day 2014, convinced that an unrelenting pace from the start would discourage her opponents and set her up for victory.  But now, after the savage pace she set on the rolling hills from Hopkinton to Heartbreak Hill in Newton had shredded her quads, the walk downstairs from the VIP room of the House of Blues to the main stage for that night’s award ceremony was proving to be yet another painful journey.

Once on stage, the top ten women were presented to the boisterous crowd. Shalane was number seven. Then, as the champion (now confirmed drug cheat) Rita Jeptoo of Kenya basked in the spotlight and applause gowned up like a beauty pageant contestant, Shalane stood behind her still unrelenting, still feisty and unbowed.

“You’re welcome,” Shalane said tartly from behind as I introduced Jeptoo to the crowd. We heard her.  It was an acknowledgment that Flanagan knew exactly what role she had played in the fastest Boston Marathon in history, her own 2:22:02 time in seventh being the fastest ever by an American in Boston.

Shalane Flanagan leading the charge in Boston 2014

The plan for Boston 2014 had been set months in advance by Shalane and her Bowerman Track Club coach Jerry Schumacher. And to a degree, it had worked, delivering the 33-year-old to the Boylston Street finish line in exactly the time she was trying to achieve. Unfortunately, it was nearly four minutes behind the drug queen, and two minutes off that which Buzunesh Deba of Ethiopia fashioned in second place – 2:19:59.

“When I first heard of Jeptoo (drug bust),” remembered Shalane, “I was angry. But then I was relieved. I could do that two minutes.”

And she nearly did, six months later in Berlin, again gunning for time rather than place. This time it was Deena Kastor‘s American record 2:19:36 from London 2006. Continue reading

AMERICAN MASTER MEB SAYS SO LONG

 

Meb after 2009 NYC win

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. Continue reading

CONSIDERING CHICAGO 2017

People have been asking why I hadn’t written anything on the outcome of this year’s Chicago Marathon after the historic win by Galen Rupp in the men’s race, and the third place finish by Jordan Hasay for women, whose 2:20:57 represents the second-fastest marathon time ever by an American woman.  Well, it has taken me a while to write, because A) I wasn’t there to talk with the principals, and B) there are conflicting emotions at play.

On the surface, it’s a wonderful thing; two American runners achieved a truly impressive outcome against world-class competition in one of the major marathons of the world.  Both athletes are likable and humble with careers of excellence going back to their high school days now coming to full flower in their professional years.  Both have loving support systems and are coached by another all-time great American runner, Alberto Salazar of the Nike Oregon Project. Together, these results are worthy of grand celebrations, all things being equal. But, of course, all things are not equal, which is what leads to the conflicting emotions. Continue reading

TEAMING UP

IAAF President Sebastian Coe gave an interview to the British newspaper The Guardian this past Tuesday June 13th to discuss the unsteady state of the sport of athletics. While admitting that the sport has been mired in crisis, racked by both internal institutional corruption and wide-spread drug cheating, Lord Coe’s prescription included the following observation:

“We have to be more innovative, we have to be braver and more creative in formats. The first thing I said when I became president was that we have to think differently.”

My question to President Coe is, did he watch last weekend’s NCAA Track & Field Championships in Eugene, Oregon?  Did he watch the women’s 4X400 meter Relay final when the University of Oregon’s Raevyn Rogers took the baton from Deejah Stevens a half-stride in front of USC’s Kendall Ellis with the entire women’s championship hanging in the balance?  Did he watch knowing that Raevyn had to win in order to overcome Georgia’s 8.2 point lead over her Ducks by scoring the 10 points for the victory? Continue reading

GASPARILLA CELEBRATES ITS 40th ANNIVERSARY

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Tampa, FL. – The Gasparilla Distance Classic began 40 years ago when what came to be known as the first Running Boom ushered in an era of personal fitness that we still see in full swing today.

In its first year Tampa city fathers invited Boston’s Bill Rodgers to the Gasparilla 15K as he was elevating himself to iconic status, already owning one Boston and two New York City Marathon titles, while holding the American marathon record from Boston 1975 (2:09:27).

Bill came to Tampa in `78 to tune up for his second Boston win two months later. That victory by the reigning King of the Roads put Gasparilla on the map, and it soon became the season opener for every great road racer worth his or her salt from around the world. Continue reading

BRADY AND PATRIOTS TRANSCENDANT

 

 

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The Boston Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy – author of The Curse of the Bambino, no less, a book about the Boston Red Sox – suggested in his Super Bowl lead today that the New England Patriots’ improbable, cataclysmic, can-you-effing-believe-it! 25 point comeback win over the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl 51 may be the greatest moment in Boston sports history.

So much emotional weight was freighted onto this Deflategate Revenge Tour finale in Houston, along with the possibility of Pat’s quarterback Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichich winning their unprecedented fifth Super Bowl title, that the game rose above any of the previous 50 Super Bowls, which on its own has become the national sporting event of the year. But the best moment in Boston sports history? Let’s consider the rivals in the three other major professional sports and our own minor one of running. Continue reading