Meb Keflezighi vowed his first marathon would be his last. Caught up in the excitement of the race, he went out too fast and hit the wall about 21 miles into the 2002 New York City Marathon, eventually fading to ninth. Winner of NCAA titles at UCLA in cross country, the 10K outdoors and the 5K indoors and outdoors, and the American record holder in the 10,000, he considered himself a miler. Coaches told him he’d be a good marathoner. He disagreed.
Yet, aspects of the race appealed to him. He enjoyed strategizing and he relished testing his physical and mental strength. He had to be tough while growing up during tumultuous times in the East African nation of Eritrea, where his father’s support of the nation’s freedom fighters drew menacing notice from Ethiopian soldiers. His father, Russom, trekked to Sudan and reunited the family in Italy before they immigrated to San Diego in 1987. What was some discomfort and a run of 26 miles, 385 yards, in comparison to what his father, family and compatriots endured?
Keflezighi, who became a U.S. citizen in 1998, stuck with the marathon. The decision changed his life and helped elevate American distance running from a seemingly hopeless chase to a frequent path to international glory.
Seven Americans won medals at the 2016 Olympics at distances of 800 meters or longer, a wave set in motion when Keflezighi used his altitude training at Mammoth Lakes to win a silver medal in the 2004 Athens Olympic marathon and Deena Kastor — also based at Mammoth Lakes — won bronze in the women’s race. He won the New York City Marathon in 2009, the first American to win there in 27 years, and triumphed at Boston in 2014 with the names of three victims of the 2013 bombing and a slain police officer written on his race bib.
“For Americans, he opened the door,” said Bob Larsen, who recruited Keflezighi for UCLA in 1993 and has coached him ever since.
On Sunday, one of the most decorated American marathoners will come full circle in New York and run his final competitive marathon. It will be his 26th, one for each full mile of the marathon. He will be 42 years and 184 days old; the marathon measures 42.195 kilometers. There’s symmetry to his timing and certainty, too.
“I’m smiling,” he said in a phone interview. “I gave everything that I had, my heart and soul, and a lot of sacrifice in between. And I am more than content with my career.
“It’s a little bit bittersweet, but I’m excited to be done with it and move on to the next chapter of my life.”
He will still run, pacing races and maybe doing some half-marathons. His speaking career beckons. So do clinics and seminars. But he won’t have to push through punishing runs at Mammoth Lakes, where he spent the last five weeks apart from his wife, Yordanos, and their three daughters, 11-year-old Sara, 9-year-old Fiyori, and 7-year-old Yohana, who live in San Diego.
“My drive for that is kind of fading away. I don’t want to be expected to win races anymore. I’ve always expected to do that,” he said.
His daughters expect something else of him now. “They think I’m going to have ice cream every day with them,” he said, laughing. “I’ll have ice cream with them some days. I want to enjoy every bite. I don’t want to think, ‘Oh, just another day with ice cream.’”
Larsen knows Keflezighi as well as anyone. He recognized Keflezighi’s potential as a high school runner, but wasn’t initially inclined to give him a scholarship. Keflezighi’s temperament and his family’s strong support persuaded Larsen that the scholarship would be well used. “I’d seen him race and I know that he was courageous making moves right in the race because he had to get rid of people who would have outsprinted him,” Larsen said. “So those kinds of things added up, that this was somebody that maybe could do something special. I never anticipated he would go as far as he would or as long as he would.”
Larsen and fellow coach Joe Vigil helped Keflezighi reach great heights by devising the altitude training project that put Keflizighi, Kastor and Mammoth Lakes on the map. “It’s been the fabric of our lives, to a certain degree, this running,” said Larsen, who has become more of a reassuring presence than a coach. “It was a way of life for a long time.”
Keflezighi made his first Olympic team in 2000 at Sydney, where he finished 12th in the 10,000. In winning silver in 2004, he became the first American man to win a marathon medal since Frank Shorter took silver in 1976. Keflezighi was the oldest U.S. Olympic marathon trials champion at 36 in 2012 and went on to finish fourth in London. He was second in the 2016 Olympic trials in Los Angeles, but was beset by stomach woes during the Rio competition. But he finished with a flourish, following a late fall with several impromptu pushups before crossing the line 33rd.
Most of his races are a blur to him, but Athens and his wins at New York and Boston are etched in his memory. “Boston Marathon, I can tell you minute by minute and breath by breath,” he said, recalling that he debated whether to slow down to save energy or maintain his pace against a late charge while battling a sore foot. “You are in pain, a lot of pain, you want to give up, but you know you can’t, because you’ve got the victims’ names on your bib. And you try to draw inspiration from them and think about them and the crowd chanting, ‘USA!’ and ‘Go Meb!’”
Larsen expects to be emotional on Sunday. “We all shed tears at Athens that day and at New York when he won it in 2009 and then Boston, oh my God,” Larsen said. “And here we are again. We don’t need a win. We don’t need a great race. We just need him to have a good day, a decent day, and we’re all going to be celebrating.”
Keflezighi will walk away with no regrets. He’d like to match his time of 2 hours, 12 minutes and 35 seconds from that first marathon, but knows the fickle nature of the race. “Those days of winning are behind me, but never say never,” said Keflezighi, who finished an aching 13th in Boston in April. “I definitely want to enjoy the journey of celebrating. If I’m not meeting my goals, then it’s having a fun time. But I’m going in to finish, hopefully, on a high note in my career.”