November 9, 2017
Last week, tributes poured in from around the running world as 42-year-old Meb Keflezighi ran his final competitive race. Between our race previews and our on-site coverage in New York, we never found the time to give Keflezighi a fitting sendoff, and our post-race coverage was dominated by Shalane Flanagan’s shocking victory.
There have been so many different articles about Meb in the last week that we didn’t want to rehash them. So we decided to make things personal. Below, the LetsRun.com staffers — co-founders Robert and Weldon Johnson, Employee 1.1 Steve Soprano, and staff writer Jonathan Gault — share their favorite memories of one of the greatest distance runners in American history.
Jonathan: Steve Prefontaine was the first U.S. distance runner I had ever heard of. Alan Webb was the second. Meb Keflezighi was the third. This was back in 2004, when I was 13 years old and never thought I would end up a runner. So even though I was a big-time sports fan, the only runners I’d heard of were the guys that had done something truly extraordinary. You know, like running 3:53 in high school. Or winning the U.S.’s first Olympic men’s marathon medal in 28 years.
Growing up, I assumed, like most non-runners, that the Kenyans and Ethiopians hoarded all marathon medals. So when I found out that Meb had won silver in Athens — this was a few months after the fact as I didn’t watch the race live — I was mostly confused. This American guy with the funny name got the silver? How?
Flash forward 10 years and I’m finishing up grad school at Syracuse, a month away from starting my internship with LetsRun.com. For the last few years, I had usually had classes on Monday and only been able to watch bits and pieces of the Boston Marathon. But on this day, April 21, 2014, I was able to watch the entire thing. Thank goodness, because there hasn’t been a more important Boston Marathon in my entire life. I felt that way even before Meb won the darn thing because, as someone who has lived in the Boston area since 2001, it was a chance for the city I love to show resilience and strength in the wake of the 2013 bombings.
It was also my last chance to be a fan. Boston 2014 was the last major race I watched before I began my work with LetsRun, where cheering from the press box is a no-no. So I wanted the Americans to run well, even though I agreed with the LetsRun preview that said the odds of an American victory were astronomical.
When Meb and Josphat Boit made their break eight miles in, I didn’t think much of it. Meb was a 2:09 guy. 2:09 guys don’t run away with the Boston Marathon eight miles in. But the lead kept growing. Thirty seconds. Forty-five. A minute. By 30 kilometers, he had 1:21 on the field, and while I still knew that 2:09 guys don’t run away with the Boston Marathon, I also knew that you don’t spot an Olympic medalist and NYC Marathon champ a minute and 21 seconds in a race. Meb could actually win this thing.
Then came the inevitable charge, Wilson Chebet flying down Beacon Street and now I was counting back down. A minute. Forty-five seconds. Thirty. With a couple miles left, Chebet was in the same frame, just six seconds behind. Meb was grimacing.
But Chebet was hurting too; that’s what happens when you split 14:29 from 35k to 40k in a marathon. He would get no closer. And as Meb streaked down Boylston Street, I felt joy and pride, but I also felt that same sense of confusion that Meb’s name had elicited when I first read it 10 years earlier. This American guy with the funny name won the Boston Marathon? How?
Even today, I’m still not sure about the answer to that question. Meb ran a great, daring race, while some of the big names (Lelisa Desisa, Dennis Kimetto) did not. What I do know is that I’m grateful for Meb, for what he did for Boston, and for giving me one last chance to be a fan.
Robert: I’m not sure if I can come up with a single favorite Meb moment. It wouldn’t be fair to limit it to one. I mean my goodness, Meb’s career started before LetsRun.com even came into existence. In the early days, Meb was a competitor against my brother, Weldon. And yet, 17 years later, he is still competing in the year 2017 at a high level. How is that possible? I am only two years older than Meb and would be hard-pressed to break four hours in the marathon — yet he won Boston three years ago? Ok, enough talk about Weldon and myself. I’d better watch out as I clearly don’t want to make this about myself.
If you asked me to name one just one Meb moment, in hindsight, I’d say I’ll always remember when Meb ran his debut in the marathon in 2002 in New York. Fifteen years later, I don’t remember if I watched the race on TV (was NY even on TV in 2002?), or if there were live splits or what. But I remember one thing. I remember Meb was making a move in the lead when the runners hit First Avenue. I remember being so impressed that an American was running with the leaders in a major marathon in the second half of the race. Now Meb faded to 9th and didn’t get much press and said afterwards he didn’t want to run another marathon. But I remember thinking, He’s much better than that result — he’d better run another marathon.
For me, that race is a great one to mention as an iconic memory for Meb as what comes to mind when I think of Meb (beside CLASS ACT), is that I think of him as being “The Bridge.” Meb came of age when American distance runners sucked. He’s retiring in an era when they most definitely don’t suck. And somehow he was competitive all the way through.
The late 1990s were the nadir of US distance running. We had guys finishing top 3 at the Trials who couldn’t hit break 13:28 in the 5000 in 1996. In 2000, we only had one marathoner that hit the 2:14:00 qualifying time. In 2017, we are one of the stronger countries in the world. The one constant? Meb.
He showed the US what one can accomplish if they do things correctly — have a coach you trust, do high/low training and go all-in on everything whether it’s rehab, drills, cross training, etc.
Other memories of Meb that I have include our podcast we did with him a few nights before the 2009 New York City Marathon. At that time, I think many viewed Meb, then 34, as past his prime as 2008 was a disaster for him as he didn’t make the Olympics and barely raced due to injury. Most fans were already focused on Dathan Ritzenhein and Ryan Hall as being the future of US distance running. Yet Meb’s two greatest moments were yet to be achieved. I remember thinking as the race was approaching, “Meb has had an amazing year. Someone needs to give this guy some publicity.” Little did we know, Meb would put up a result that made sure everyone gave him the publicity he so deserved.
I’ll always remember his 2014 win in Boston as well. When Meb went to the lead, a fellow journalist in the Bostoin press room wanted to start taking bets as to when Meb would get caught. Once again, Meb was being doubted. I’ll admit that I too thought he had next to zero shot of holding on (after all, pre-race we said he had somewhere between a 1 in 27 and 1 in 19,813 chance of winning), but he did.
But as I hinted at above, the main thing I think of Meb is “CLASS ACT.” To be honest, I had more interactions with Meb’s team — whether it was his brother/agent Hawi or coach Bob Larsen — than Meb himself as once Meb won a major he always ended up being swarmed at press events. So instead of trying to fight that and get the same soundbite that everyone else had, I’d always go try to track down Hawi or Coach Larsen. Finding people on the inside that weren’t press-shy and would tell you the truth about Meb’s buildup was refreshing.
From The Archives:
*LRC Preview of NYC 2009 Which Meb Won (75% of You Thought Ryan Hall Would Be First American)
*LRC Coverage After Meb’s 2009 NY Win
*2009 Podcast With Meb
*LRC Coverage After Meb’s 2014 Boston Win
Weldon: With Meb, it’s not possible for me to have one favorite moment. Meb first and foremost represents a generation of excellence.
I’m biased because I was a 10,000m runner, but I’ll start with a race that hasn’t been mentioned yet and that is when Meb broke the American record for 10,000m in 2001 at Stanford. The race at Stanford was set up for Bob Kennedy to break Mark Nenow’s American record of 27:20.56 that had stood for nearly 15 years. Kennedy had been the standard bearer of US distance running for his generation, but America needed someone to fill the void. Up stepped Meb, who, coming off his first stint of altitude training, ran 27:13.98 to get the record (Kennedy DNF’d). If Americans were going to compete with the world’s best, they needed to eclipse the times of a generation before, and now finally someone had broken Nenow’s record. Meb’s 10,000m record in 2001 fit the template that he would expand on bigger stages later in his career: it was an important race, the focus was not on him, he quietly went about his business preparing, and he defied the expectations of virtually everyone except his inner circle. This run was also significant because I think it showed Meb was an altitude responder.
It’s a long-running joke with Meb’s brother, Merhawi, that we at LetsRun.com always underestimate how Meb will do in a race, he emails us beforehand saying he really respects our opinion but tells us to look out for Meb, and Hawi is proven right. Now this wasn’t happening back in 2001 as I was still competing and we weren’t previewing many races, but Meb has always performed well, yet somehow always exceeded expectations.
Fast forward to the 2004 Olympics. Meb was only the runner-up at the Olympic Trials, but there he was winning the Olympic silver medal. Granted, Deena Kastor had medalled a week before, but at the time, American men weren’t sniffing medals in distance events. It was outside of the realm of possibility, unless you were Meb. If Meb’s career had ended then he would have taken American men’s distance running to a new level. Yet his career has continued at a consistently excellent level for 13 more years.
In 2007 and 2008 it looked like it was very possible that Meb’s career would end with Athens being the highlight. In 2007, he didn’t make the US Olympic marathon team and he missed most of 2008 battling injuries and didn’t make the Olympic track team.
Meb righted the ship in 2009 and was running very well and I’m glad that LetsRun.com decided to give him some love before New York on the podcast as heading into this race, not only was Meb not supposed to win, 75% of you thought he would be the second American behind Ryan Hall. A family obligation prevented me from attending or watching New York that year, and I could barely comprehend what was happening as I followed on my phone. Meb was going to win the New York City Marathon. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised because it fit the Meb script: huge stage, exceed expectations. But this was a whole another level of the script.
Meb followed the “quietly get in great shape, exceed expectations” script on the biggest stage yet again at the 2012 Olympics and at what has to be his most improbable and memorable victory, the 2014 Boston Marathon, which everyone else has covered.
This past Sunday during the TCS New York City Marathon, 17 years after I first encountered Meb at the 2000 Olympic Trials, maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, but once again I was surprised, because there was Meb charging up First Avenue running with the leaders, the last American to get dropped from the lead pack. He was 42 years old, but still contending with the world’s best. Unbelievable.
Really, really unbelievable if you’re only two years older than Meb like myself. I can’t really fathom how he does what he does (if you are under 25 and reading this, bookmark it and come back in 20 years to really appreciate it). I didn’t realize this until now, but Meb’s career excellence has perfectly spanned the existence of LetsRun.com. Meb won his first Olympic Trials in 2000, the first year of LRC. His career has seen the rise and fall of Alan Webb, Ryan Hall and many others. The only thing consistent in the running world during the existence of LetsRun.com is the greatness of Meb. His retirement is the end of an era.
He will be missed on the track and off the track. As Robert said, he and his entire team are CLASS acts. We will miss you, Meb.
Steve: So I was going to go with Boston 2014 as my favorite Meb moment, but Jon beat me to it. I was going to tell a story about watching the race on my own in my room in Flagstaff when my computer crashed near the end and I had to frantically reboot it while panicking that 1) Meb might get caught or 2) I might miss Meb’s winning moment crossing the finish line. Well, since that story is about one sentence long, I guess it’s for the best I had to dig a little deeper in the memory bank.
When I thought about it some more, I realized that Meb was the star in two marathons that were very significant for me as a fan of the sport. Meb competed in both the first marathon I ever watched on TV and the first marathon I ever attended live. That might not seem like much of a coincidence, but when you consider that those two marathons were eight years apart (the first one after my sophomore year of high school and the second one my first year after college) it really put the span of Meb’s career in context for me. You almost take it for granted that he’s always been there and it will be strange to watch future marathons without wondering, “What will Meb pull out of his hat today?”
Anyway, the first marathon I was referring to is when Meb won silver at the 2004 Athens Olympics. This was the first Olympics after I became a runner, so I was extremely naive. I didn’t know who Meb Keflezighi or Alan Culpepper and Dan Browne (the other two Americans in the race) were. I didn’t know that an American hadn’t won a marathon medal in 28 years.
I remember really wanting to watch this race because I had missed all the other distance races throughout the Athens Games. For some reason I couldn’t catch it live, but determined not to miss my last chance I recorded it on VHS tape to watch later (yes, this was a long time ago). I was very new to following pro running, so in retrospect the experience was pretty important as a first impression and Meb delivered and inspired. My first marathon viewing could have gone a lot of different ways, certainly not all of them are exciting. But this one definitely was. Watching the race turn into a cat and mouse game as Meb and Italy’s Stefano Baldini worked together to close the gap on Brazil’s Vanderlei de Lima, who had broken away with a big lead earlier in the race; getting angry when de Lima was tackled by that Irish priest; getting pumped when Meb won the silver and feeling relieved when de Lima still ended up with the bronze; it was an awesome first marathon experience. Cheering on an American to a silver medal got my adrenaline pumping and left me hungry for more because this professional running thing was pretty cool.
Fast forward to the 2012 Olympic Trials in Houston and I’m not the naive high schooler, but a post-collegiate runner and covering my first race as a LetsRun.com employee. You can read the race recap here, but safe to say that Meb delivered and inspired once again. In typical Meb Keflezighi fashion, he came in doubted and under-hyped as the 36-year-old was racing 69 days after the NYC Marathon. He couldn’t possibly pull it off again. But not only did he make the team, he won the whole thing. After the race Meb talked about the hard work it took to do what he did: “When the camera’s not watching, when the newspapers are not there, we work very hard at what we do. It’s not easy … there are so many obstacles as distance runners that we face … We work very, very hard at what we do. When the opportunities come, you take them … If you believe and work hard and do the right thing, (then) God has a good plan for me.”
I went to bed that night exhausted from a day of work and high emotions and I remember my legs were so tired I fell asleep with them propped up on a stack of four pillows (trying to get the blood flowing). But I woke up early still inspired by Meb’s words and went out and ran a minute PR to finish 10th in the Houston Half-Marathon. I left Houston after my first live marathon viewing excited and motivated for my future as a runner and a running journalist, and once again a large part of that was thanks to Meb.
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