The following is a preview of my article for the June issue of Birmingham Track Club‘s monthly newsletter, The Vulcan Runner:
In previous columns, I have written about a couple of my running heroes, Terry Fox and Team Hoyt (Dick and Rick). I decided this month to write about another one of my heroes, Meb Keflezighi. In addition to being one of my running heroes, I am blessed to also call Meb and his brother, Merhawi, my friends. We often see world-class athletes and have an impression that they are so far removed from us that we could never have the chance to actually meet them.
Like the marathon, life can sometimes be difficult, challenging and present obstacles, however if you believe in your dreams and never ever give up, things will turn out for the best.
~ Meb Keflezighi
In my case, a chance meeting at the expo for the Zappos Las Vegas Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon/Half Marathon in 2010 developed into a friendship. I was at that race with my good friend, David Kahn. We saw someone just standing in the expo talking with a couple of runners and thought it looked like “the guy” that won the ING New York City Marathon the year before. We introduced ourselves and were happy to learn that it was indeed Meb. When he discovered that we were from Birmingham, he told us that our city held a special place in his heart. In 2004, he qualified for the Athens Olympic Games at the Marathon Olympic Trials in Birmingham. He was the runner-up at those trials and went on to win a Silver Medal in Athens. We ran into him and met Merhawi a month later at the expo for the P.F. Chang’s Arizona Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon/Half Marathon in Phoenix. From there, our friendship grew.
But I also realize that winning doesn’t always mean getting first place; it means getting the best out of yourself. One of my greatest joys is inspiring other people to perform at their best.
~ Meb Keflezighi
Meb visited Birmingham back in November 2012 and spent a few days meeting and running with a number of our local runners. There was a meet-and-greet event benefitting his charity, MEB Foundation (Maintaining Excellent Balance), at David’s house one night. There was also a book signing at Aloft in Homewood another night where many people got the opportunity to talk with Meb as he autographed their books and posed for pictures. David even went to London to be Meb’s “gopher” during the 2012 Olympic Games, where Meb was the top U.S. marathoner with a fourth place finish after winning the trials earlier that year in Houston. For this January’s Houston Marathon/Half Marathon, David and I had the opportunity to act as Meb’s handlers for the weekend when Merhawi had to go back home unexpectedly. Seeing Meb interact with runners of all skill levels gave me some insight into just how humble he is. He never turned down a request for a picture or autograph, even when we were pushing him to his next appearance. While in Houston, he also won the U.S. Half Marathon Championship (his 22nd career national championship). On top of that, he came back out on the course to run David in as he finished the half marathon and he ran me in as I finished the marathon later in the day. He did that even though he ran and won his own race earlier that morning. While standing near the finish line, he also congratulated and high-fived other runners as they finished their race. As always, he was uplifting and encouraging to everyone he encountered.
Probably the highlight of Meb’s career (from my selfish perspective) is his win at this year’s 118th Boston Marathon on 21 April. Not only did he become the first American in thirty-one years to win this prestigious event, but he also did it by running his personal best of 2:08:37. In my opinion, Meb was just what Boston needed following the tragic events that occurred the year before. At this point, I should mention that he was just a couple weeks shy of his 39th birthday when he won. I noted that this is a selfish highlight for me and that is because I was there. Of course, I did not see him finish since I was still on the course at the time. In fact, Meb was close to mile 20 when I started, but I got to run the majority of that race knowing that he had won thanks to the thousands of spectators lining the course. I could not have been more happy or proud.
While in Boston, a few of us were fortunate to spend some time with Meb the night before the marathon. Jack Burnette and his wife, Barbara, along with me and my wife, Caroline, visited Meb in his hotel room for a few minutes on that Sunday night. This was also when we met Meb’s wife, Yordanos, for the first time face-to-face. We found Meb very comfortable and relaxed in his room. Jack said a prayer for Meb as we were planning to leave so Meb could get some rest. Before we left his room, Meb asked if we wanted to take a picture. Of course, we said yes. The next thing we know, he is pulling two boxes out of the safe in the room. When he opens them, one contained his 2009 New York City Marathon Championship Medal and the other held his 2004 Olympic Silver Medal. He let Jack wear the Silver Medal and he let me wear the NYC Medal in the picture. That was a huge honor for the two of us.
I have an Olympic medal. I won New York. Before today I felt my career was 90% accomplished. There was one gap. Now I’ve won Boston, and I feel 110% accomplished.
~ Meb Keflezighi
Jack and I told Merhawi after we left Meb’s room that we thought he was confident in his training and that he expected to run well the next day. We hoped it would be well enough to win since the elite field was strong this year. When he won, it made the whole trip for me. My race became secondary. Of course, it meant we lost our dinner partners for Monday night when he won. Apparently, Meb had a few obligations that went along with being the Boston Marathon Champion.
As an athlete, you have dreams, and today is where the dream and reality meet. I was just crying at the end. This is probably the most meaningful victory for an American, just because of what happened. It’s Patriots Day.
~ Meb Keflezighi
I think it is safe to say that Meb is a favorite of the Birmingham running community. A number of Birmingham runners have raised money for the MEB Foundation through various races: Alison Burnette, David Kahn, Joey Longoria, LB Mitchell, Carrie Patterson and me. We have adopted Meb as one of us. You only had to look at Facebook during and after the Boston Marathon to see that the vast majority of posts were about Meb. It was more than the obligatory congratulations. Runners were posting pictures that they had taken with Meb when he visited here. Others were sharing their stories about interacting with him at one time or another. There were plenty of “generic” congratulatory posts on Facebook, but the tone of the Birmingham posts was much more personal. That is just indicative of the type of person Meb is. He genuinely cares when he speaks with people and just wants to encourage them to “Run to Win.” That is his way of telling people to be the very best they can be. I have heard him tell that to so many people.
Just when there was a need for another American hero in our sport, along came Meb. He epitomizes everything this sport stands for – courage, determination, commitment, and above all, respect. There is no better role model in our sport than Meb Keflezighi.
~ Dave McGillivray, B.A.A. Boston Marathon Race Director
If you have not read Meb’s book, Run to Overcome, I highly encourage you to buy it or borrow it from someone. It is an inspirational story about his journey from humble beginnings to winner of the New York City Marathon. Without giving too much away, you will learn about how his father escaped their home country of Eritrea and made it to Italy to save his family during the thirty-year war between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Meb’s father had to flee the country because his life was threatened by the Ethiopian regime. He worked for four years in Italy as a laborer to get his family out of Eritrea so they could join him. After their reunion in Italy, the family immigrated two years later in 1987 to San Diego. Meb was twelve-years-old at that time. Despite a significant language barrier, Meb and his ten siblings persevered and thrived by making education their top priority. The Keflezighi kids hold eight undergraduate degrees, a MBA, a MD, a JD, etc. I would say they have become very productive members of society since their arrival in this country. Meb earned his U.S. citizenship in 1998 and has represented our country in numerous international competitions, including three Olympic Games and several World Championships.
Meb embodies what can be accomplished when one takes advantage of the opportunities presented to them. His story of dealing with both struggle and success can teach us all what it means to persevere through anything life throws our way. For distance runners, Meb has become a role model that rejuvenated interest in their sport.
While Meb’s performances have shown me what is possible for American distance running and urged me, his teammate, to press in for more, his overcoming spirit through the lows have shown me what it looks like to be a real man. Meb has the remarkable capacity never to lose hope and to experience joy in his life no matter what his circumstances. He is truly gracious in victory and defeat. It is this characteristic that I admire most in Meb.
~ Ryan Hall, American long distance runner and Olympian
I consider it a privilege and honor to call Meb a friend. It is not so much because of his running accomplishments, which are numerous, but because he is such a fine Christian family man. You only have to be around him for a few minutes to realize that he really does care about others. The world could use more people like him and Merhawi.
The following are just some of Meb’s running accomplishments:
- Olympic Marathon – 2004 (Silver Medal in Athens), 2012 (4th in London)
- Boston Marathon – 2014 (Champion), 2006 (3rd), 2010 (5th)
- New York City Marathon – 2009 (Champion), 2004 (2nd), 2005 (3rd), 2010 (6th), 2011 (6th), 2002 (9th)
- London Marathon – 2009 (9th)
- Chicago Marathon – 2003 (7th)
- USA Marathon Champion – 2009
- USA Half Marathon Champion – 2009, 2014
- USA Cross Country Champion – 2001, 2002, 2009
- USA Olympic 10,000m Trials Champion – 2000, 2004
- USA Olympic Marathon Trials – 2012 (Champion), 2004 (2nd)
- USA 15k Champion – 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2007
- USA 10,000m Champion – 2000, 2002, 2004
- 22-time USA Champion (16 roads, 3 tracks, 3 cross-country)
- Former U.S. 10,000m record holder (27:13.98 set in 2001)
- Inducted into the UCLA Hall of Fame in Fall 2010