In 2012, I got interested in the marathon trials for the Olympics. On the women’s side I was watching Shalane Flanagan and Kara Goucher, who placed first and third respectively. I was anticipating a win by Ryan Hall and for Dathan Ritzenhein to place. Instead, Meb Keflezighi (Ke-FLEZ-ghee) won at the age of 36. I thought, “Who is that?” He seized my attention and I read his book, Run to Overcome.
The openness of the book was engrossing and charming. I really liked how he artlessly talks about his Christianity, his nationality (dual citizenship with the US and Eritrea), his accomplishments, struggles, and his profession. One of my favorite passages is about how he becomes a professional runner and chooses between Nike, Reebok, and Asics for a shoe contract. I’ve always wondered about those real-life details. Another favorite passage is about studying for the citizenship exam and how he chose to run for the United States as an athlete. He had to choose early in his career, just out of college and long before he was assured of success. He weighed the benefits of running for Eritrea, which would mean he could virtually guarantee a spot on an Olympic team and at world meets, versus running for America, which had a mature sports program, better facilities, and coaches. In either case, he was mindful of the attention he could bring to his home country with excellent running. In the end, he chose to run for the United States.
Meb is a hero of mine for many reasons: his deep spirituality, his humble beginnings, and his ability to run into his late 30s. And now I admire his sense of humor as well. At this point, who knows how long he’ll keep improving?
Check out the wiki entry here for a more complete backgrounder:
I found out Meb was going to be speaking at the Oz Marathon Pasta Dinner on a run with friends about 2 weeks before. At first I thought, but I can’t go… I’m not running the marathon. Then my mind was expanded, “Wait! I can just go to the dinner! That would be awesome! And I won’t have to worry about what I eat since I don’t have to run!” I bought tickets after a short debate. ($30 bucks for spaghetti? It turned out to be salads, chicken, and vegetarian (cheese) manicotti, and it was not that great. And there was no dessert.) I made my decision before Meb had won Boston. I didn’t even know he was going to run Boston. But when I found out, (because I heard about the 60 Minutes interview with Shalane Flanagan and followed some links from there) I thought, he might just win… And wouldn’t that be incredible?!?
In this post, I am going to weave together some of the things I’ve learned from his book, the internet, and his talk on Friday, April 25, 2014.
The Pasta Dinner sold out shortly after Meb’s Boston win. When I arrived, I saw that we were a group of only about 150 people. Meb is 5′ 5.5″ and can’t weigh any more than 125 pounds, and he arrived with his brother. He is a slight man with big hands. He wears a large, plain silver wedding band and a big Garmin. He is (every inch and every pound) an elite runner.
He looked tired to me, and I remarked that he couldn’t have gotten much rest since Monday. We were sitting at adjacent tables, and I could easily see him. (Lucky me!) He started eating, and I thought of my wedding day. I think I got 5 minutes to eat that day. I spent a lot of time being “the groom.” It was exhausting.
Meb was born on May 5, 1975, and grew up in Eritrea, a small country that was annexed by Ethiopia in 1961 and then won its independence in 1993. In the book I learned that, during the famine in the Horn of Africa in the mid-70s and 80s, he literally ate dirt. In Eritrea, there was no running water, instead they had to “run for water.” His mom and dad, Russom, owned a grocery store in Eritrea. When he was very young, his dad had to flee 225 miles through the desert to Sudan, to keep from being conscripted into the army. His mom was pregnant, and there was no ultra sound. (“You think if we have no running water we’re going to have ultra-sound?”) So they didn’t know if they were having a boy or girl. Russom asked to name the child Bemnet if it was a boy or Amini if it was a girl. Both names mean “trust.” His dad was asking the family to trust him to bring them back together. A little girl was born, and she was named Amini.
Russom eventually made it to Italy and had saved about $2,000 to be used to get the family reunited. When his employer found out that there was a whole Keflezighi family back in Africa, he gave Russom a gift (“not a loan”) of $6,000. You can imagine the trust and respect that he had earned.
Meb was 12 yrs old (in 7th grade) when he came to America in Oct of 1987, and his family settled in San Diego. In Eritrea, he had survived on Red Cross aid; and in San Diego, his family received food stamps. He learned English one word at a time from a dictionary that the whole family shared.
His siblings all graduated from college and many are professionals: doctors and lawyers. Grades were very important to the family. In 7th grade, his phys ed teacher had Meb run a mile. He said, “If you run hard, you will get an A. If you run it in 6:15, you will get a t-shirt. If you don’t run hard, you will get a C or D.” Meb said, I wanted the A and the t-shirt. He ran it in 5:20. The teacher said, “You are going to be in the Olympics!” And at the time, Meb didn’t even know what the Olympics were, but he was glad to get the A and a t-shirt!
On choosing between soccer or running: “My nick-name was Pele.” In his book, he talks about scoring a goal with a bicycle kick, but a friend told him he could be a great runner, so he went with running. He got a full scholarship at UCSD, which is very rare for a distance runner. Sprinters and the field events sometimes get full rides, but not distance runners. He graduated in 1999, mostly running the 10K. “The marathon was too far. I didn’t even know how long it was.”
In 2002, it was an off year, with no world meet or Olympics. He decided to try the marathon and had a horrible experience and swore, like just about everyone else who has ever run one, that he was never going to do it again. But in 2004, for the Athens Olympics, he made a choice between the 10K and the marathon. He talked about the tradition and prestige of the marathon, and how Pheidippides “passed away” after delivering the message that the Greeks had triumphed over the Persians. And Meb ran away with the silver.
2008 was a tough year. He didn’t make the Olympic team. He suffered an injury during the trials, but still finished 8th. And during the trials, his friend Ryan Shay, an Olympic hopeful himself, died from a heart attack on the course. Meb spent several months searching his soul and trying to figure out what the injury was until a doctor found a hairline fracture in his hip. At the same time, the Keflezighi clan had made a financial investment and commitment to a grocery business that struggled and eventually failed. With the reduction clauses in his running contract and his inability to compete effectively, he was in dire financial straits. Coming back from this made his 2009 New York marathon win special. Not only had he overcome injury and a heart breaking losses, he was the first American to win the New York Marathon in 27 years.
The book has a final chapter, The Bell Lap. Meb talks about coming off the New York win, establishing his charitable foundation, and training for Boston 2010. It does not go so well. He winds up slipping on ice twice, while just walking. And he has an an injury that keeps him from getting in his best training. Needless to say, that year Boston did not go so well. And he talks about his remaining goals; one is to make it to London for the 2012 Olympics, run about three more years, and win Boston. Given the outcome in 2014, I was so happy for him. I loved that he didn’t just end the book with the New York win. And now that I am trying to have a year of running “injury free,” and that I have fallen on ice a couple of times through the winter, and that I feel like I’m just getting the final kinks out, I was struck by the parallels between our stories. It gives me some hope, inspiration, and perspective.
In Meb’s real life, there actually was London in 2012. “Athens was all about myself. But 50 people came to watch me in London. People asked me: Do you enjoy the scenery? No. I did not enjoy the scenery. I was too busy thinking about the race and my competitors. Not once did I think, ya know, this is a nice place to stop.”
Near the end of the London Olympic marathon, his coach held up 6 fingers. Meb thought, “Is that for me in 6th or the Japanese guy next to me in 6th?” Then he went through a hilarious numbers game about what place he was in. First, he dropped the Japanese runner (now he’s in 5th or 6th), and saw the next runner in front. He was thinking, “If that guy is in 4th and any of those other guys get busted for drugs or something…” So Meb caught up to him with 500m to go and passed him (now he’s in 4th or 5th).
He saw an American flag held out to him, and he debated grabbing it or not. I found the remark on this decision amusing, but it demonstrates his patriotism, his devotion and gratitude to the United States. The audience of runners chuckled. We knew. At the end of a race, do you want to pick up something and run with it? Especially something that is going to create drag? He had finished the Olympic trials with a flag in his hand, and it had become a kind of signature for him.
Coming to the finish, he remarked, “At Boston there is a big sign that says “FINISH!” At the London Olympics – there’s this little line on the ground.” He finished in fourth. Making the Olympics is enough, but this gave me a new appreciation for fourth place.
Now, when I see the lead pack with several runners in it I think, any one of them can win. You never know who is going to break, who is going to be able to dig deep, or who is going to have the race of their life. Sometimes you can see the wheels start to come off and it breaks my heart. Sometimes you see a runner finishing joyfully, and that makes me cry too. I cried recently watching the women’s 2012 Olympic trials. There are so many of them running strong in a solid pack at the beginning, and they slowly start to thin out. I don’t know all their stories, but I can see the fierce determination on their faces and the hours of training on their bodies.
At funerals and weddings I’m usually ok. Marathons are starting to get dicey.
For Boston 2013, Meb was in the Boylston bleachers with his family. He was scheduled to run, but an injury side-lined him. They left for an appointment five minutes before the bombs exploded. When asked if he would be back next year (he choked up at this point), he said, “I’m gonna come back as a participant!” From here, I was in tears myself, and kept writing as much of what he said as I could. Other remarks were “Boston strong – do it for the people.” “Just wanna do your part.” And “If I could pull it off… The Sox put the World Series trophy on the Boston finish line. That was a sign. Running was important to Boston.”
In the May 2014 Runner’s World, Beverly Fergus, who was in Boston and near the second blast, is one of the featured runners. She said, “It reinforced to me that anything can change on any day, you know? I so badly want to protect my family. And I can’t – that was so random.” Reading these words takes me back to that day as well. (Here’s my blog post.) Although I was in Kansas City, it terrified me to see the bomb blasts, the spectators, and the runners; I thought that it could have just as easily been me or someone I love. For those who chose to go back, I can only imagine that it takes tremendous courage. It makes me want to go there myself.
And it’s not just about courage. It is about reaching for something you might not grasp. (Or as Nikos Kazantzakis put it “Reach what you cannot.“) It is about pushing outside of your normal limits. It is about seeing what God has planned for you when you hear a voice saying, “Why don’t you try that?”
As Meb neared Boston 2014, he had a minor hamstring tear but otherwise felt pretty good. He just wanted to “get to the starting line healthy.” Then he went to Mammoth, four weeks before Boston, and his “quads acted up.”
For the race, Meb wrote the names of the 4 people killed in the 2013 Boston bombings on his bib. He led early with Ryan Hall and Abdi Abdirahman, his fellow Olympic teammates. I saw this part of the race, up until just before the 5K mark, then I had to go to a meeting. (I almost took vacation for at least the morning! Mostly because I had friends running as well, and I wanted to be there.)
At one point the camera cut back to the runners who were still walking to the starting line. Many of them had their arms in the air; and the crowd, several people deep, was cheering. I thought, “For those about to run, we salute you!”
I distinctly remember watching Meb in the lead with Ryan Hall and the other Americans. Meb was checking his watch, and he looked a little nervous and tight to me; while Hall was gliding (seemingly effortlessly) along. I thought, “Ryan has this. This could be his day.” Of course, it was early. The announcer said, “The Americans are out in front with Ryan Hall from California and Meb Keflezighi from Eritrea in the lead.”
From Meb’s talk, they were “making gaps with the other runners.” At mile 13, he didn’t know the splits. And thought “Forget the time. Forget the watch. Just compete. I went by myself up the hills. I put down a 4:31 mile.” He used the crowds chant of “USA!” and focused on the hills to keep up the pace.
With three miles to go, he was thinking “I’m a target for the other runners.” He looked back and saw an orange shirt behind him. At 1.2 miles left, he was using the crowd and focusing on downhill mechanics. He said, “Luckily there were turns.” He could peek behind and then sprint around the corner, opening a gap. With 600m left, he could see the finish line. He thought, “God, help me get to the finish line.” There was a grimace on his face. “I was digging deep.” He was “asking God to be able to finish… and focusing on the chant ‘USA!’”
When he finished, his first words were “Boston strong. America strong.” Like Neil Armstrong’s first words after landing on the moon, he had been thinking about what he was going to say, because he had been thinking about winning.
He was glad to win Boston and to have the crowd support. That night he said, “It shows the world that we are resilient.”
What is it about this win? I can’t quite put my fingers on it. I feel like Steve Martin in Parenthood when his kid catches the fly ball to win the game. I am overjoyed that an American won Boston; but if a non-American had won, I could have just moved on. I still would have gladly gone to the Pasta Dinner to see Meb.
What is it about this sport? As if there was ever a question, running (and Boston) embodies resilience. Stephen Colbert may have said it best: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T8b3wuuzL8w We put one foot out, and we write the next chapter. And for every story that terrifies there are 36,000 that inspire us. We heal what was broken, and make it strong there.
Meb closed with this remark, for those about to run the Oz marathon, “Tomorrow… Get that BQ so I can join you next year!” I thought this was a very humble and inspiring send off.
But the next day was not conducive to PRs or BQs. My friend, Tad, who ran Boston and missed re-qualifying took on the Oz marathon. It was the Saturday after Monday’s Boston. You may know there were adverse weather conditions. Adverse like a strong southerly wind, lightning, rain, and some hail. Unfortunately, he missed qualifying by a few minutes again, but I really admire him for having the guts to finish. It was a pleasure and an honor to run a few miles with him.
I got in line for an autograph. I felt bad because Meb looked pretty tired. He was still smiling though. Many people had their Oz bibs for him to sign. I had my book, “Run to Overcome.” I think the title is a publishing compromise on Meb’s mantra, “Run to win!” which is from 1 Corinthians 9:24, “Don’t you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize? So run to win!” If the title had been “Run to Win!” it might have been perceived as conceited, which would be ironic given Meb’s character.
Meb signed my book, “To: Nelson – Thank you for all your support. Best wishes & RUN TO WIN! -Meb” That’s the whole thing. Perfect. I’m thinking about ripping the cover off.
When I thought about “Run to win!” as a mantra, I realized it is NOT about winning. It is about running. Running “to win” gives you purpose, drive, and focus. Then, win or lose, you will have done your best.
We shook hands. I told him, “You are an inspiration.” Meb said, “I have been blessed.” I smiled at him and he smiled at me. I said, “You have worked hard, my friend. You have worked very hard.” He smiled a little bigger and gave me a nod.
What I did not say is that he has inspired me to qualify for Boston and actually go. He has worked so hard for so long and overcome so many obstacles; while I (in contrast) have coasted along, benefiting immensely from the good fortune of being born “here.”
Getting in to Boston is not easy. I have met the qualifying standard with a 3:14:21 in Kansas City in the Fall of 2013. But with so many other people with faster times, I will likely not get a bib. This year, all of the qualified Boston runners had times 1:38 faster than the standard. I would have needed a 3:13:22. So probably not this year, and probably not 2015, but 2016 is looking promising. I turn 45 and get an extra ten minutes, but it’s a long way to go.
Thinking through this, I realized that Boston is a competition with many other great runners. I’ll need to move up in the pack just a little bit. Some of them will have run on flatter or more hilly courses. They may have run through the snow, ice, lightning or rain. Or they may have woken up on race day to a gift: no wind, 50°, overcast skies, low humidity, and healthy, carb-loaded bodies. (Sounds like a typical morning in Kansas City. Right?) Even if I come in “fourth,” I want to run to win. And Boston gives me a goal to strive for.
I am so glad that Meb chose to be an American.