The accolades pile up now like so many miles in training, the latest round coming at him in Washington, D.C.’s Anacostia Park. Mebrahtom Keflezighi—Meb for short—is here serving as the starter of the ACLI Capital Challenge, an annual three-mile race for members of Congress, judges, White House staff, and the media to settle the question, as the press release puts it, “Which branch of the government is the fittest?”
As prerace rain threatens on this May morning, Keflezighi’s fans descend on him in a parking lot. It’s an honor to meet you. You make us proud. I came out to see my buddy Meb—he’s my new sports hero. Here’s Keflezighi signing the shirt of an AARP editor. Here’s Keflezighi chatting with his congressional representative, Susan Davis of San Diego. Here’s Keflezighi bumping into Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema, of Arizona’s 9th District. “Oh, my God, it’s Meb!” she exclaims. “I was there when you won Boston. I finished hours after you.” She turns to her staffers. “Have you met Meb?”
The steady drumbeat of selfies and autographs, the hugs, the small exchanges so the masses (and politicians) can hover in his orbit, if only for a moment—these are the trappings of his new and unexpected celebrity. But Keflezighi handles it all with grace. “Hi,” he says, shaking hand after hand. “I’m Meb.”
A few years back, in his late 30s, an age at which most distance runners have already succumbed to the ravages of time, Keflezighi thought his own career had begun its gentle downward glide. His silver medal in the marathon at the Athens Olympics in 2004 had inspired a rising generation of U.S. distance runners, who realized that they, too, could compete on the world stage. He had been the American record holder in the 10,000 meters on the track, the winner of the New York City Marathon in 2009. But none of those feats resonated much beyond the confines of the sporting world. None stirred the public’s imagination quite like his victory at the 2014 Boston Marathon.
One year after the finish-line bombings, Meb, with the names of four victims lining his bib, became the first American to don the laurel wreath since Greg Meyer in 1983. His winning time: 2:08:37. It was an emotionally charged counterpoint to the tragedy of the year before, one whose magnitude he fully understood only the following day, when President Obama called to congratulate him. “April 21, 2014, changed my life,” Meb says. “It was just an epic moment.”
In February, at the U.S. Olympic marathon trials in Los Angeles, his charmed run continued, when he finished second and qualified for the team headed for Rio de Janeiro. On August 21, at the age of 41, he’ll become the oldest American ever to compete in the Olympic marathon. This is no gentle descent into retirement; this is a gravity-defying assault on the basic principles of aging.
There are precious few days at home, and this morning, a week before Keflezighi’s D.C. trip, is one of them. As his three girls—Sara, 10; Fiyori, 8; Yohana, 6—gather their things for school, Keflezighi, his stubble dotted with gray, cycles through his daily stretching routine on the second floor of his Mediterranean-style villa in the upscale Mission Hills neighborhood of San Diego. He looks more yogi than runner as he leans back into a bridge, his hips arched into the air, his head tucked behind his arms.
Keflezighi moved here three years ago with his wife, Yordanos, after they sold their house at his high-altitude training ground of Mammoth Lakes, California, when he thought he was finally going to assume the domestic rhythms of middle age.
Instead, most of his day is dedicated to the grind: readying himself to run a sub-5:00-minute pace for 26.2 miles. After walking the girls to school, he circles the waterfront trails of Mission Bay Park for an easy 11-miler at a 6:38-per-mile clip, his black compression socks calf-high, his blue earbuds playing a combination of rap and traditional Eritrean music, his five-foot-five-inch, 125-pound frame radiating a ruthless efficiency. In the afternoon, he sprawls out on the massage table of Kevin McCarey, a sinewy former Villanova distance runner whose walls are plastered with autographed photos of the athletes he’s worked on during his 30-plus-year career. “I have never seen a body hold up this long,” McCarey marvels, as he digs into Keflezighi’s tight right hamstring. “You should be in a wheelchair by now!”
How to explain his longevity? He’s built more rest into his schedule, shifting from a seven-day to a nine-day cycle, with a long run (up to 28 miles), a tempo run at around marathon pace, and a shorter workout. He no longer keeps diligent track of his weekly mileage, instead backing off whenever his body begins to rebel against the workload. “His training—it’s the same stuff over and over again. He keeps grinding, replicating what he knows worked for him,” says Ryan Hall, a two-time Olympian and one of Keflezighi’s former training partners. “He’s devoted to his craft. He does all the little things. He is relentless in his pursuit of getting the best out of his ability.”
To spend time with Keflezighi is to come to terms with what he represents: the more than 100,000 lifetime miles, the gallons of sweat, the year after year of subjecting his lungs to a slow burn in the 7,000-plus-foot elevation of Mammoth Lakes, the countless ice baths and form drills and the willing embrace of a social calendar rivaling that of an abbey monk. Except, of course, for that one night in 2004, when Keflezighi first met Yordanos, at an Eritrean soccer tournament in San Jose. “I asked him to come to a party. He said he had a tempo run in the morning. Can you imagine Meb saying he’ll come to a party the night before a tempo run?” Yordanos asks, incredulous. “But he came to the party, and the rest is history.”
His career, more than anything else, has come to be defined by one simple fact: his capacity to endure. He endured the death of his friend and training partner, Ryan Shay, who suffered a heart attack during the 2008 Olympic marathon trials in New York. He endured a stress fracture in his hip during that same race, when the combination of his lingering grief and his slow-healing injury nearly led him to quit. He endured getting dropped by Nike, his longtime sponsor, when his contract renegotiations unraveled after he won the New York Marathon in 2009, becoming the first American champion since Alberto Salazar in 1982. “Meb felt like after what he had done, he should have a certain amount of guaranteed income,” says Merhawi Keflezighi, his brother and agent. “He was tired of having to prove himself year after year.” He went eight months without a shoe sponsor and nearly quit again, before Skechers signed him.
Keflezighi’s capacity to endure is nothing compared to what his parents suffered. He was born during Eritrea’s three-decade war for independence from Ethiopia and spent his early life in a two-room hidmo with no running water or electricity. When he was six, his father, fearing for his life because of his support for a rebel group, decided to flee, walking 225 miles to Sudan—more than a marathon a day. His mother was left to tend the crops and cattle and to care for six children. “You’d hear, ‘Soldiers are coming, soldiers are coming,’” Keflezighi recalls. “If you’re 12, they’re going to take you. My brothers would jump into the bushes.”
His father sent money when he could, but Keflezighi was sometimes left to suck the nutrients from dirt to keep the hunger at bay. His dad eventually made it to Italy, where the owner of a cleaning company that employed him became a benefactor, helping him to complete the necessary immigration documents and fund his family’s travel from Eritrea. After almost five years, the Keflezighis were finally reunited; in 1987, they immigrated to the United States.
Given his roots in East Africa, a celebrated incubator of world-class distance running, just how “American” is Keflezighi? The question has shadowed him for much of his career, mostly confined to the dark recesses of Internet message boards but also on full public display after his New York victory. “Nothing against Keflezighi,” wrote Darren Rovell, in a CNBC story, “but he’s like a ringer who you hire to work a couple hours at your office so that you can win the executive softball league.”
Never mind that Keflezighi’s development as a runner took place entirely in the U.S., starting in a seventh-grade gym class at Roosevelt Junior High School in San Diego, when he ran a 5:10 mile, and continuing at the University of California at Los Angeles, where he won four NCAA titles. Rovell wrote a follow-up story (“What I Got Wrong”), but for Keflezighi, the memory still burns. “My daughters were born here, but they’re not going to forget their heritage,” he says. “The United States is a land of immigrants. The Verrazano Bridge, who was it built by? The Statue of Liberty? It frustrated me. I’m not going to lie.”
Then came that mythical morning in 2014. “America likes winners,” Keflezighi says with a knowing smile. “After I won Boston, everything was deleted.” The year before, he was standing at the finish line, snapping photos of the parade of runners, texting back and forth with Ryan Hall about how it was finally time for an American to win the race: We can do this. Let’s get after it. Then, shortly after Keflezighi left the finish area, the bombs went off, and his mission assumed an unexpected urgency.
“People thought I was too old, I had less than one percent chance, it was the most stacked field ever.” That’s what he remembers thinking before he snuck away from the pack the following year, building a lead of more than a minute, then somehow holding off the Kenyan Wilson Chebet in a delirious charge down the homestretch. “Most of the day leading up was about remembering, paying tribute, recovering,” recalls Dave McGillivray, the Boston Marathon’s race director. “There were not a lot of people talking about who was going to win or the race itself. But he made it a race. Temporarily, the innocence of the marathon was stolen, but then we took it back. The athleticism, that’s what we are about, and Meb brought that right back.”
Keflezighi bows his head in contemplation, his eyes closed, his posture prayerlike. An interviewer rattles off questions from a clipboard in a small underground studio in D.C., where, a few hours after the Capital Challenge race, Keflezighi is recording a spot for the sports diplomacy arm of the U.S. State Department, promoting sensitivity toward refugees and cultural exchange through sport.
What would you like to tell the public about refugees?
Keflezighi, his dark blue suit neatly pressed, opens his eyes, braving the studio lights. “As a refugee, you are open to the new hope of opportunities,” he says. “And those seeds of hope can translate into great things. But you need opportunities, like I had.”
He never anticipated that his reach would extend so far, but he’s embraced his new role, serving as a kind of running ambassador. “I am in a position, due to God’s grace, where I can have an influence on certain things,” Keflezighi says. “It’s not what I want to do any more; it’s what you can do to help others.”
His goal for Rio? Keflezighi admits that Boston felt like the climax, that he’s entertained the idea of reveling in the spectacle that is the Olympic experience, treating the race as an afterthought. Just showing up in Rio, he’ll be an inspiration, a glowing example of how resilience and grit can trump age. But Keflezighi’s competitive urge is not easily repressed, and he’ll return to Mammoth Lakes for a high-altitude training stint before flying to Brazil. To count him out because of his age would be a mistake—one that even his former training partner Hall admits he has made. “I would have said the same thing about him going into Boston,” Hall says. “Meb defies what we have thought about limits.”