A four-time Olympian and silver medalist; New York City and Boston Marathon winner; record setter and history maker; Mebrahtom “Meb” Keflezighi has racked up over 120,000 miles in his running career and his journey from refugee to role model, along with his heart and passion, built his legacy – all because of a t-shirt.
Born in Eritrea during the country’s war for independence, Keflezighi’s father walked over 200 miles, slept in trees and journeyed through the wilderness to escape his homeland and spent the next five years in Italy working to rescue his family. At 10 years old, Keflezighi boarded a plane with his mom and siblings and reunited with his father before they moved to San Diego in 1987.
The following year, a seventh-grade PE class set Keflezighi’s future in motion. Students who showed improvement and hard work would earn an A and a Roosevelt Junior High t-shirt, but Keflezighi’s progress and running speed was eminent.
“I knew he had some kind of special talent that he didn’t yet recognize,” recalls Dick Lord, Keflezighi’s middle school coach. “I said ‘Meb, you have a special talent in running… someday, if you want, you’re going to be in the Olympics.’”
Learning the Olympics gathered the best athletes in the world; Keflezighi heeded Lord’s advice and continued cross-country into high school and at UCLA where he won four NCAA titles. In 1998, Keflezighi became a US citizen and in 2000 qualified for the Sydney Olympics and placed 12th in the 10,000-meter. Two years later, he took 9th in the New York City Marathon – his first long-distance race –vowing to never run another marathon. It was his first of 26.
Visiting Eritrea with his mom for the first time since leaving, Keflezighi witnessed the struggle of those who stayed and realized running a marathon wasn’t nearly as difficult as his life could’ve been. Knowing the marathon would yield more prominence at the Olympics, Keflezighi began training in San Diego and at a higher altitude in Mammoth Lakes to prepare his lungs for the strenuous distance. In 2004, he qualified for the Athens Olympics and despite being the 39th favorite to win he beat the odds and took home the silver medal.
Following his victory, Keflezighi ran the NYC Marathon again in 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007, but still hadn’t claimed first. Suffering a pelvic stress fracture, Keflezighi didn’t qualify for the 2007 Olympics, but the NYC Marathon became his new objective and in 2009 he became the first American in 27 years to win it.
“To be able to pull that victory,” he says, “it’s the gold medal I never had from the Olympics.”
In 2012, Keflezighi qualified for the Olympics a third time, but London’s cobblestone track almost made him quit.
“I was contemplating dropping out but then,” he says, “I looked down, I said ‘I’m wearing a USA jersey, how many people would love to be in my shoes? Even though you’re not going to get your goal, just get to that finish line no matter what. Amazingly, I came in 4th and that allowed me to overcome adversity, be in the moment, never count yourself out.”
In 2013, Keflezighi watched the Boston Marathon from the bleachers, unable to start due to an injury, and left mere minutes before the bombing. To honor the victims and survivors, Keflezighi’s newfound purpose after that day was to win the marathon in 2014 – a feat no American had done since 1983.
“On April 21st, 2014, I was 2 weeks shy of my 39th birthday. I had less than a 1-percent chance to win the race according to experts. I was the 18th fastest guy in the field,” he says, “but I was fortunate enough to be able to pull the victory for the runners.”
Since coming to America, Keflezighi has worked hard to achieve his dreams, and while he didn’t reach them all, he never gave up.
“Keep your dreams alive,” he advises. “You’re not going to win every race, you’re not going to get all A’s or you’re not going to get your dream job, but it’s a stepping stone to hopefully something greater that you can do for yourself and your family.”
Marathon Meb’s Tips for the Weekend Warrior Runner
- Double-tie your shoelaces and tuck them into your shoes. It’s the best way to start and not worry about them coming untied.
- Meet someone. It is easier to go for a run with someone, even if you run at a different pace or distance. The company and accountability make it fun.
- Pace yourself. Going for a run doesn’t mean going all out, so go your own distance and at your own pace.
- Prehab instead of rehab. Evaluate your body. Try to be aware of your signals and be in tune with your body. You can even look at your shadow and check your running form to watch what your body is doing. If you see something wrong, try to strengthen it.
- You are what you eat, so be careful. When you have a smooth routine it’s easy to be on a good track and do well. However, if you get injured, then be mindful of what goes into your system.