EXCLUSIVE – BOSTON BY MEB – IN HIS OWN WORDS
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By Chris Lotsbom, @ChrisLotsbom
(c) 2017 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved
BOSTON (05-Apr) — On April 17, Meb Keflezighi will race from Hopkinton to Boston for the final time as an elite athlete, closing a tremendous Boston Marathon career than has spanned more than a decade.Keflezighi, 41, has won an Olympic silver medal and became the first American in 27 years to win the New York City Marathon in 2009. But Keflezighi’s 2014 Boston Marathon title, coming a year after the horrific bombing on Boylston Street, holds strong as the pinnacle of his storied career. Since becoming an American citizen in 1998, Keflezighi has solidified his case as the best marathoner in USA history.
In advance of his Boston swan song, Keflezighi agreed to speak with Race Results Weekly over the phone to discuss his Boston career. What was scheduled to be a 20 minute interview quickly turned into an hour’s worth of memories, with Keflezighi detailing his favorite Boston moments in fine detail. He shared some personal stories and anecdotes, described his victory in detail, and looked ahead to this year’s race.
Year by year, Meb dissected his time in Boston, from his debut in 2006 to his final competitive race in less than two weeks. Here is Boston, in his own words.
* * * * *
2006: 3rd place, 2:09:56
The story of Meb Keflezighi’s Boston Marathon journey began in 2003, three years before he’d toe the line in Hopkinton. After running his marathon debut in New York City in 2002, Keflezighi hoped to tackle Boston next. He’d beg and beg coach Bob Larsen to run the race year after year, yet his mentor routinely said “no.”
Meb finally got the chance to run in 2006, bursting out of the gate and leading an American resurgence in Boston. In the 15 years from 1990 to 2005, a total of six American men finished in the top ten in Boston. For a decade and a half, Americans were an afterthought at the nation’s most historic and envied road race.
Keflezighi changed that in a matter of hours by leading the field through halfway in 1:02:45, more than two minutes faster than Cosmas Ndeti’s previous course record split. Keep in mind, these were the days before 2:06 times were common, and when the world record stood at 2:04:55.
“By the time I got to the halfway point I remember it said 1:02:45. It was world-record pace at the time. I just said it’s going to be a great day and a PR for me, or it’s going to be a long, long day,” Keflezighi recalled with a hearty laugh. At the Newton Firehouse (mile 17.5), Keflezighi began to suffer the consequences of his eager pace. “All you could hear was ‘USA, USA!’ By the fire station all the way to the finish line, all I wanted to do was drop out. But I was wearing that USA jersey and that kept me going.”
After going out in 1:02:45, Keflezighi’s second half split was more than four minutes slower (1:07:11). He finished in 2:09:56 for third, becoming the first of five American men to finish in the top ten that year.
Brian Sell and Alan Culpepper were fourth (2:10:55) and fifth (2:11:02), respectively, while Peter Gilmore and Clint Verran placed seventh (2:12:45) and tenth (2:14:12). This was the first year in decades where Americans made a splash in Boston. Meb’s placing was the highest by an American since Gary Tuttle and Mark Helgeston finished second and third in 1985.
“Brian Sell, Culpepper, and then Peter Gilmore and Clint, that was the biggest turnaround for U.S distance running in the marathon,” Keflezighi said, pausing to reflect on the time. The seed was planted: An American could one day win the Boston Marathon again. “I believed I always could win. I knew there was more to come… I wanted to compete against the Kenyans. I got third. If I played smart and got invited back, I knew I had a chance to win. All my outside friends who have been in the sport since the 60s and 70s, they always thought Boston was my kind of course.”
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2010: 5th, 2:09:26
“Going into 2010 I wasn’t 100-percent. I fell twice and had patella bursitis,” Keflezighi began, when asked about his initial memories of the 2010 Boston Marathon. “Going into the race I was banged up. I had won New York in ’09 and wanted to be the next American in a long time to win New York and Boston. That’s the reason I didn’t go to the London Marathon. I had a pretty nice offer from the London Marathon but I decided I wanted to win championships in the United States. Boston was missing from my resume and I wanted to be able to do it.”
Though Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot ran away in a course record time of 2:05:52 and Ryan Hall notched a 2:08:41 fourth place finish (the fastest ever by an American in Boston up to that point), Keflezighi ran strong to a fifth place finish in 2:09:26. The time was just eleven seconds shy of his then-PB 2:09:15.
“I remember Ryan passed me near the train station area after we made the left, on Beacon Street maybe. He just rubbed my head. A mile, mile and a half or so before the finish line he caught up to me and wound up getting fourth, I got fifth. I was pretty happy with that. My main goal was to win back-to-back, New York and Boston champions. It didn’t happen and is what it is. But both those times I had run, 2006 and 2010, they were course records, both by Robert Cheruiyots — obviously two different Cheruiyots. When you’re defeated by those guys and it’s the fastest anyone had ever run on the course, you have an appreciation and kind of say ‘I just need to work harder next time.’”
Results in their nature are very cut and dried: there is a place and a time that defines how the event went. But what results don’t do is give color to the competition. The best part of the 2010 race was tackling the course together with Hall, a close friend and fellow Californian. In a special moment seen by very few, Hall and Keflezighi reunited and celebrated each other’s times with their family after the race. Caught on camera by this writer, the moment was unforgettable.
“I remember I gave it 100-percent and going through the medical tent my eyes were full of tears that I failed to win it for the people. Only if people understood my motivation and desire to win. In 2010, my dad and mom were there with Ryan’s parents. My dad picked us up, Ryan and I, both at the same time with each arm to the waist level. Not bad for 73 years old.”
* * * * *
2012 – Grand Marshal
Coming off a win at the Olympic Trials Marathon, Keflezighi was honored by being named Grand Marshal of the 2012 race, one of the hottest races in Boston Marathon history. Temperatures were in the upper 80sF from the start in Hopkinton to the finish in Boston.
“I remember real well being the Grand Marshal. I remember it was fun, I had never done that before. I had made the Olympic team and wanted to celebrate. It was an honor to be there, something Bill Rodgers and others had done,” Keflezighi began. “What I remember about that race was that it was hot. Spectators were looking for the shade. I said ‘Uh oh, that’s not a good thing. Runners can’t look for the shade…’”
No one, not even Meb, would know how much the 2012 race would come in handy two years later.
“I remember a friend of mine named David Kahn, from Alabama, he was running for the MEB Foundation that year in 2012. He’s a six-hour guy, wanted to break six hours. Many people don’t know this but he asked if I was there, could I pace the last mile. I said sure, if I’m there I’d love to.
“It was really hot, [defending champion and course record holder] Geoffrey Mutai dropped out. It was so hot people said don’t risk yourself and you can [defer your entry to 2013]… I remember David called, I was doing a PowerBar interview on camera and my brother Hawi answered the phone to make sure he was OK. He said, ‘I’m really hot, I’m walking more than running.’ Hawi said it was OK to drop out, that even Geoffrey Mutai, the defending champion, had dropped out. The competitor in David said, •You mean I can beat Geoffrey Mutai to the finish?!?’
“So he kept going and I met him at the one mile to go mark. We jogged and walked together to the finish line and I gave him the medal, took pictures… It was fun and that’s what I really remember from 2012. That experience came in handy.”
Yes, it would come in very handy. Just wait until 2014, when the final mile with Kahn would run through Keflezighi’s mind as he was out front of the 118th Boston Marathon. We’ll get to that in a few moments. But first, 2013.
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2013: 2:49 p.m., April 15, 2013.
All runners remember where they were on April 15, 2013, the day a pair of bombs went off along the Boylston Street finish straight. Keflezighi had just left the bleacher seating adjacent to the finish (and across from one of the blast sites) minutes before the first bomb exploded. A persistent calf injury had forced him to scratch from the race in early April, but Keflezighi still was in town for the weekend festivities. When 2013 is raised, Meb’s tone changes. It’s a mix of frustration, compassion, gratitude, and determination.
“I’m going to give you a little background and tell you why things happen for a reason,” he began. “To be honest, if it wasn’t for the 2012 fourth place finish at the Olympics, I don’t know if I would have been invited to come and run the Boston Marathon. I’ll leave it at that. The ups and downs of my career… But finishing fourth and the only American finisher at the 2012 Olympic Games, that helped an invitation occur for 2013 Boston.”
Believed by some to be too old to run fast, Meb was sure he had plenty left in the tank. His buildup for the 2013 Boston Marathon had been going great until a freak accident with a dog led to a torn soleus muscle in his calf. Initially, all three American Olympic marathoners –Keflezighi, Hall, and Abdi Abdirahman– were entered. But all three would withdraw due to injuries.
“When Abdi dropped out and Ryan dropped out, I begged Hawi to get me back into the field,” he said. “I thought there needed to be an American up front in the field. My heart told me there needed to be an American up there, even if I could only make it for 10 miles.”
Though passionate, Keflezighi let his body recover and come Marathon Monday he was in town for sponsor and television obligations. Meb’s recollection of April 15, 2013 is so clear that he remembers running 10 miles along the Charles River that morning and even bumping into a police officer who nearly caused him to miss his live TV spot with Universal Sports.
Meb watched the race’s early stages in a hotel but moved outside to take in the elite finishes. What he saw transformed him. “I watched for four, four and a half hours or more until I had to leave for an appointment with Universal Sports, my first time live,” he said. “I watched, and watched the wheelchair people and wondered how they ended up in wheelchairs. Was it war, or other circumstances, maybe they were like me? I wanted to know their stories.”
When Lelisa Desisa won in 2:10:22, a fire was lit in Keflezighi.
“You see the men finish and I remember it was 2:10-something. I remember sending a text to Ryan Hall from the finish line and I said •We CAN do this.’ That’s what I told him, after looking at the winning time. He said ‘Yeah, we can get after it.’”
They both would a year later. But first, the entire running world came to a halt.
At around 2:30 p.m., Meb departed the grandstand bleachers along the finish straight to do prep work for his television appearance. Reaching the Fairmont Copley hotel, roughly 250 meters from the finish, he heard a bang. A John Hancock employee would inform him shortly thereafter the bang was a bomb.
“Who would ever think that it would be a bomb?” he said. “Helpless. We couldn’t do anything. It’s like how could somebody do that? There’s no way, I can’t believe it…
“The reason that motivated me was because I was a spectator that day, just like Krystle [Campbell], Martin [Richard], and Lingzi [Lu], the people that died. They were just like me. I was a spectator at the 2013 Boston Marathon, not an elite athlete. People say, ‘Oh you missed it because you’re an elite runner.’ No. The reason it touched me is because it could have been my wife, my kids, me, the runners, my brother. That day I was a spectator. That was us.”
Back in the hotel, Meb had dinner with Bonnie Ford, the ESPN endurance sports reporter. Asked if he’d run Boston again, Meb was defiant.
“I’m going to be here to support the race, but I just hope to be healthy enough to win it for the people” he recalled telling Ford. “That goal was set that afternoon, hours after the bombing. It all had to come together and it definitely came together for me in 2014.”
* * * * *
2014: 1st, 2:08:37
Without even a pause, Keflezighi transitions from the heartbreak of 2013 to the triumph of 2014. He would return to Boston, and leave a lasting impact on the city and American distance running.
“I did what I could to be there healthy. If you look at any of the years, 2010, 2006, or 2014, which one was the fittest I’d ever been, it was 2006. That was probably the year I should have won, in terms of fitness. But in terms of internal drive that you want to do greater than yourself, 2014. You can want it, you can desire it, but there was a higher power. I’m a believer, God had a plan for me to be able to do that,” he said.
Before the race began, Meb took a sharpie to his bib and wrote the names of Krystle Campbell, Martin Richard, Lingzi Lu, and fallen MIT police officer Sean Collier.
“I just thought about it — an inspiration I’ve learned from fellow runners is that they want me to autograph their bib numbers so they can get inspiration, or when they look down they can think •Meb – Run to Win’ and get the best out of their self. They share those moments with me when I meet them. I just said this is Boston Strong, I want to write their names big so I can get their strength. To have that inner motivation was huge.”
Hearing Meb recount his 2014 race, mile-by-mile, is like an artist painting a masterpiece. While Meb has chronicled his win hundreds of times in the years since, he speaks off the cuff and with a deep passion. Listening to each description in detail — the pain, euphoria, struggle, and exultation– gives goosebumps.
He breezes through the first half of his race without taking so much as a breath, only pausing to describe that neither he nor compatriot Josphat Boit got their halfway split when leading the race. Meb jumps from the halfway point to mile 16 and 17, the same spots on the course where his race went off the rails in 2006. Once again, the letters U-S-A across his chest would uplift him through the Newton Hills.
“I came in with three goals. One, to win. Two, top three. And three, personal best,” he began. “Mile 16 was 4:30 and by 17 miles, just like I was hurting in 2006, I was hurting pretty bad this time around having issues with the bottom of my foot. But wearing that USA, they keep you going, the people keep you going. I was in the lead and at 18, 19 miles, people were chanting USA! USA! And I started joining them. I have a picture of it in fact. Going by Boston College, people were doing the wave and it was an amazing sight.
“With about 5-K left is when I first observed and looked back and saw someone behind me. I have no idea who it was or what they were going to do, but I did a lot of visualization and knew it was going to come down to Boylston Street. I just kept pushing and pushing. Three things came to mind: slow down and save your energy for Boylston, try to maintain the gap, or try to extend the gap. I said as a runner, by saving my energy the person catching up to me will have the mental edge, and they will slow down and try to out kick me at the end. I said ignore that plan. Maintain or extend the gap.
“At mile 24 I was digging so deep that I started throwing up but I couldn’t show my weakness. I just held it in, covered my mouth and swallowed it in, you know?”
Then came mile 25, the same spot where he met and ran with David Khan from the hot year in 2012.
“At 25, I remembered that when I ran with David Khan, that I only had a mile to go. I remembered that year, and remembered the victims’ names that I wrote and the spectators who were so loud.
“With 1-K left I thought, ‘Uh oh, whether it’s an Ethiopian or Kenyan behind, they go by kilometers and will know exactly how much is left.’ He’s going to think three minutes of pain, three minutes of pain. I said ‘Well, it’s three minutes of pain for you too, so dig deeper and mechanics, mechanics, mechanics. Lean forward on the downhill, uphill shorter stride and more arm action.
At that point, he wasn’t focusing on the finish line adjacent to the Boston Public Library. Instead, he focused on the final turns: right on Hereford and left on Boylston.
“You’re going to come to Hereford and make a right. My finish line is on Hereford and Boylston. Sprint as hard as you can, and by the time he makes the turn, make [the gap] bigger so he gets discouraged, hopefully. Going onto Boylston I just crossed myself and said, ‘Thank You God for giving me this opportunity to lead.’ It was electrifying sound from Hereford to Boylston, all down Boylston to the finish line. It was amazing. I’m trying to put it into words.
“I accelerated, accelerated, and it was the thrill of a lifetime to be able to chant ‘USA! USA!’ as an American, after what was catastrophic in 2013 to what was a dream for everybody in 2014. To be able to have my dream come true, have an Olympic silver medal, win New York, and finally win Boston on the most important day in marathoning ever, the year after the bombing. To have 36,000 participants and fellow runners, it was an amazing moment to be the first American in 31 years.”
Not since 1983 had an American man, Greg Meyer, won Boston. Meyer was there to welcome Meb into the winner’s club.
“Greg Meyer was there to give me a hug. Before the race he told me, ‘You are the smartest runner out there so get it done.’ That’s what he said. He wanted me to win that race for me, for Ryan, for Culpepper and all the Americans who had run since… I broke down when I saw him. I was looking at the picture on my Twitter page the other day, you see the relief of a lifetime looking to the sky and to God and saying ‘Thank you for this moment.’ To have my wife there give me a hug, Hawi, my mentor Bob Larsen, it was a dream come true. Sometimes dreams come late rather than early. I wanted it in 2006, but 2014 at the finish line was a magical moment. Tears of emotion, tears of happiness, tears of overcoming obstacles through the struggle of marathons and struggle of life. When you least expect it, it all comes together. It all did for me and couldn’t have happened at a better time.
“Usually you get a ‘Congratulations’ or ‘Well done’ after a win. But people said ‘Thank You.’ Saying ‘Thank You,’ that’s an amazing compliment’… Boston deserved that.”
* * * * *
2015: 8th, 2:12:42
Returning as champion, cold weather and fluid issues derailed Keflezighi’s hope to retain his title. Yet Keflezighi didn’t give up and drop out. Despite having to stop five times, he continued on and responded to the cheers of thousands lining the streets.
In a touching and symbolic gesture, Keflezighi came down Boylston Street waving to the crowd. Catching up to elite women’s runner Hilary Dionne –at the time running as a member of the Boston Athletic Association, organizers of the Boston Marathon– Keflezighi reached out, grabbed her hand and they finished together.
The photo went viral and gave a glimpse into Keflezighi’s true character: compassion and kindness.
“Of course I remember 2015 very well. Hilary Dionne, I didn’t know who she was, I could only see her from the back, and didn’t know what shoe company she ran for or what Association she represented. I had no idea. But I saw her at the finish line and she made me sprint because she was ahead. I always say ‘Run to Win,’ and that doesn’t mean always getting first place. It’s to get the best out of yourself and out of others… To come to that finish line with her, that was awesome. Running wise it wasn’t the best day, but finishing with her I’ve remembered that for a long time.”
From their moment at the finish, Keflezighi and Dionne became friends.
“Friendship, that’s what running is. The comradery of being united together is unbelievable beyond the finish line. 2015 was awesome. I had difficulties, stopped five times, but I thought I had a chance to win until 21 or 22 [miles]. You only have a chance if you can make it to 21 and 22. I was saving all my energy but started throwing up. I thought I had a chance of defending, but obviously it didn’t happen. But finishing with Hilary was an awesome finish.”
* * * * *
2017: April 17
When asked about his final Boston Marathon, Keflezighi chuckles.
“Life is a circle. I started by telling you people used to say, ‘You’re a distance runner. Have you done the Boston Marathon?’ I thought finishing third in 2006 was good enough for me to tell people, yes I have run the Boston Marathon. When people ask ‘What bib are you going to wear, number 2,000-something or 10,000 or 15,000?’ No, I can tell them I wore bib number three and I was third at the Boston Marathon. That would have been a great story to tell.
“In 2010, to say that I’ve finished third and fifth in Boston, that’s a huge accomplishment. But to tell them that I won,” Keflezighi said before his longest pause of the chat, letting the words truly sink in. He has won Boston. “Now people, when I introduce myself, it’s not a silver medalist or New York champion, when they hear you won the Boston Marathon the year after the bombing, it’s, ‘Oh my goodness!’ I was eighth in 2015, and now getting ready for the 2017 Boston Marathon, if I can finish in the top ten or podium or whatever, the drive is there.
“I leave no stones unturned. I do the best that I can. I had a little setback weeks ago on my 26-mile run, twisting my ankle a little and the other ankle overextended some muscles. What you saw in New York at the NYC Half, that wasn’t my best but I was going to finish thinking that I have one last hard effort before going to altitude training. 2017 Boston, I look forward to it. I train to win. Depending how the next week and a half goes, I’ll go for top ten, top three, and maybe win. If it doesn’t happen, I’m OK with it. I don’t want to make it a celebratory run but if things are not going so well, whoever is next to me be ready because we’ll be running together. Have fun, that’s what the sport is. Pray and stay healthy over the next couple weeks and do my 25th marathon. I’ll have one more in New York, but I’m excited.
“The finish line for Boston is near, two and a half weeks away. It’s been a good ride. One more marathon after that, and after that maybe I’ll come back to Boston and run with the people,” Meb said, ending the hour-long conversation with a quick pause for reflection. “I take my job as high regard as possible, to do the best that I can to represent the sport of running and I’ve been very fortunate to accomplish many accolades. But at the same time, it’s time to give back… It’s a dream come true.”
PHOTO: Meb Keflezighi and Ryan Hall with their fathers, Russom and Mickey, after the 2010 Boston Marathon (photo by Chris Lotsbom for Race Results Weekly).