BOSTON – Meb Keflezighi helped the running world reclaim the Boston Marathon with a sensational American victory the year after the deadly 2013 bombings.
Now he’s nearing the end of the road, and he couldn’t be happier.
Keflezighi says he’ll hang up his racing shoes for good after running next month’s Boston Marathon and the TCS New York City Marathon in November.
By then, he’ll have racked up 26 marathons and he’ll be 42. Considering the metric equivalent of the classic 26.2-mile distance is 42.2 kilometers, it feels to Keflezighi like the universe is saying it’s time to call it a career.
“People say, ‘Why stop? You’re still at a high level.’ But it takes a lot out of you,” the four-time Olympian told The Associated Press.
“Even when my family gets together, I’ve got to get my run in,” he said. “I love the sport. I had the best job in the world for a long, long time. But I have to be fair to my wife and my three daughters.”
Keflezighi was born in Eritrea, but his family fled the Horn of Africa’s war and poverty and eventually settled in San Diego. A U.S. citizen, he was a high school standout who went on to break records at UCLA and win four NCAA titles before turning pro in 1998.
He made his first U.S. Olympic team in 2000, competing in the 10,000 meters in Sydney. The following year, he set a U.S. record of 27:13.98 in the 10K, and in 2002, he made his marathon debut in New York.
It took a while for Keflezighi to warm to the distance. He’d finished ninth. Everything hurt. He swore that first marathon would be his last.
But he kept hammering. At the 2004 Athens Olympics, he took silver, becoming the first American man in 28 years to medal in the marathon.
He won New York in 2009 – the first U.S. champion there in 27 years. Meb memes materialized overnight: Meb on Mount Rushmore, Meb at the moon landing, Meb as the Statue of Liberty.
U.S. marathon record-holder Deena Kastor calls Keflezighi “one of the best tactical U.S. distance runners in history.”
“He hangs on patiently when the pack erratically surges. He attacks when others seem vulnerable,” she said. “If there is one thing you can always be sure of, it’s that he gave his best, his all.”
Keflezighi finished just out of the medals at the 2012 London Olympics. Fourth is usually the most pitiful place for an Olympian, but he was overjoyed. He’d clawed his way back, picking runners off one by one while resisting the urge to drop out.
“Running isn’t always about getting the win. It’s about getting the most out of yourself,” he said. “That made me feel I had a chance to win Boston.”
No American had taken Boston, marathoning’s biggest prize, in three decades.
And after a pair of bombs planted near the finish line in 2013 killed three spectators and wounded more than 260 others, it became desperately, overwhelmingly important to do so.
In April 2014, two weeks shy of his 39th birthday, Keflezighi scribbled the names of the dead on his race bib and set off from Hopkinton, Massachusetts. Two hours, 8 minutes and 37 seconds later, he stormed across the finish line on Boylston Street in a personal best, pumping his fist to wild chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!”
“Every day for 365 days I was visualizing how I could do something meaningful on Boylston Street,” he said. “You couldn’t script it any better than that. It was the most gratifying moment of my life.”
Boston Marathon race director Dave McGillivray says Keflezighi – the only Olympic medalist who’s won New York and Boston – will forever be part of running’s pantheon.
“Meb is a true hero in our sport,” he said. “Not because of his many victories or because of all the medals he’s won, but more so because of the standards he lives by – his unselfish and philanthropic generosity, his humbleness, his positive attitude, and his compassion and caring for those who are less fortunate.”
That’s expressed in the MEB Foundation the runner set up to promote health, education and fitness among youth.
As a former refugee who chased the American dream, Keflezighi takes a dim view of travel bans and the notion that immigration needs to be reined in.
“We’re positive contributors to society,” he said. “You want to give people a chance and a hope. That’s what the United Sates is built on. Our diversity is our strength.”
Keflezighi intends to run his final Boston and New York marathons with all the strength and speed he can muster.
But after that, it’s chill time, even though he’ll do an occasional 5K or half-marathon “so I can run with the people.”
“When I run, I don’t run for myself. I run for the sport of running and for the people who pushed me to be the best I could be,” he said.
“I like to think I’m the people’s champion.”
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