He takes nothing for granted and why the mile – not the marathon – may be his next goal
MARATHONER OR MILER?
When Meb Keflezighi won the 118thBoston Marathon on April 21, he was able to cross off one of the two remaining items on his running bucket list.
Meb has long wanted a Boston win to complement his Olympic silver medal in 2004 and his New York City Marathon victory in 2009. The race captivated him because of its history and atmosphere. He loves the enthusiasm and knowledge of the crowds. The native of Eritrea, who came to the U.S. when he was 12 in 1987, also has a strong connection to the Eritrean community in Boston.
Now that he ran a PR of 2:08:37, a PR two weeks before turning 39, and outfoxed a field that included 14 runners with PRs better than his previous best, he has just one more item on his bucket list – breaking 4 minutes for the mile.
You can take the boy out of the mile, which happened to Meb when he entered UCLA in 1994, but you can’t take the mile out of the boy. A time mile in 7thgrade Phys Ed is what got Keflezighi started in running. When he ran 5:20, his PE teacher, Dick Lord, called the coach at San Diego High School, Eduardo Ramos, and told him, “We’ve got an Olympian here.”
The distinction of having the fastest time in the school also helped Meb assimilate. All of a sudden, kids weren’t making fun of homemade haircuts or second-hand clothes.
As a senior at San Diego High in 1994, Keflezighi was the fastest miler in the country, recording a 4:05.58 in winning the national prep title in Raleigh, NC. The runner-up in 4:07.13 was Seneca Lassiter, who would go on to win NCAA and U.S. titles in the 1,500.
The mile championship race and PR came less than 24 hours after he won the 3,000 and at the end of a long, busy outdoor campaign. Veteran distance runner and marathoner Ron Tabb, a mentor and occasional training partner for Meb, thought Meb was capable of a sub-4 in high school if he had raced less, skipping dual meets and instead focusing on a major effort. Meb’s goals of winning state and national titles, both of which were accomplished, took precedence over times.
As Meb wrote in his biography, Run to Overcome, “It bothers me more now than it did in high school that I’ve yet to run a sub-4 mile. Part of me still remains a miler.”
At UCLA, Meb was a miler only briefly, being groomed by coach Bob Larsen for longer distances. His best collegiate time was 4:02.24 indoors as a freshman.
So you probably didn’t know that at heart Meb is a miler. Here are some other things you might not know:
A LONG-RUNNING COMMITMENT
Meb has been coached since 1994 by Bob Larsen, the retired UCLA track and cross country coach. When Larsen visited the Keflezighi home in the fall of 1993 on a recruiting visit, his plan was to offer Meb a partial scholarship.
During the visit, he was so overwhelmed by the family that he spontaneously offered Meb a full scholarship.
“Kiddingly I’ve said I gave the scholarship to the family rather than Meb,” Larsen said. “Meb was impressive, but the family – wow. They were tough, high achieving, determined people. Definitely that went a long way in my decision.”
Larsen found himself draw to the family’s story. Meb spent most of his earliest years in rural villages without electricity or running water. The little schooling he had occurred in a one-room schoolhouse. Larsen had grown up in similar conditions, without electricity or running water in rural Minnesota.
The two have been together so much that they now finish one another’s sentences. They have evolved from coach-athlete relationship to mentor-mentee and now a deep friendship. But it didn’t start that way. Meb, thanks to his Eritrean background of deferring to adults, didn’t communicate well with Larsen early in his UCLA days.
Meb even considered transferring, growing tired of not having training partners capable of pushing him harder or not having access to training facilities and trails available at schools such as Arkansas, a distance power.
The two have been together for 21 years now. Larsen sold Meb his first car, a Ford LTD for $50. (Note to anyone thinking about a possible NCAA infraction: The car was 25 years old and the transaction occurred after Meb’s eligibility expired.) Larsen has seen Meb get married and father three girls. While Larsen’s wife was dying of cancer, he still found time to commute to Meb’s workouts. A smart real estate investor, Larsen has coached Meb on finances and real estate. The two have a deep bond.
Larsen now is more of an advisor or consultant. Meb develops most of his workouts. He’s gone from 25-35 miles a week as a high school freshman to 40-50 as a high school senior to 50-65 as a college freshman and up to 145 as a seasoned marathoner.
He can’t run that kind of milage now. He compensates by doing a lot of cross training, particularly with ElliptiGO, kind of a an elliptical trainer crossed with a scooter. He spends a lot of time in the gym with strengthening programs and works extremely hard in recovery.
The mileage may have decreased but the Keflezighi work ethic doesn’t ebb. There may be no other athlete working as hard and as diligently at training/recovery than Keflezighi.
ALL ABOUT FAMILY
The prize family possession at the home of Meb’s parents, mother Awetash and father Russom, in San Diego is not one of Meb’s many trophies or medals. It’s a small, plastic Aladdin’s Lamp, earned by the oldest Keflezighi child, Fitsum, as the top 9thgrade student at Roosevelt Junior High in San Diego.
When the Keflezighi’s arrived in San Diego via Eritrea and Italy in 1987, they literally had just the clothes on their backs. The airline lost what little luggage they left Italy with.
There were some friends and relatives in the area. Otherwise the family faced severe challenges. Nobody spoke English; nobody had significant formal schooling. Russom instituted 4:30 a.m. study sessions using an English-Tigrinya dictionary. There never was no homework. Even if teachers didn’t assign any, each child still studied every night.
When older brother Fitsum won the academic award, the family was energized.
“It was our most rewarding moment,” Meb wrote in his book. “All of Fitsum’s hard work paid off. He provided us with a great example and hope – if we worked hard, the rest would follow. My parents had preached that bit of wisdom for years in Eritrea and Italy. Now we saw it in action in the United States. Maybe we could take advantage of the Land of Opportunity.”
The 10 Keflezighi children have either graduated from or are attending California colleges. The group includes Fitsum, an engineer; brother Aklilu, an MBA; brother Merhawi, a lawyer and now Meb’s agent; sister Bahghi, a physician. Meb is considered an academic slacker with just an undergraduate degree from UCLA.
The family still celebrates every Oct. 21, the date of their arrival in San Diego. As the children have scattered across the country, they can’t all be together for the celebration. But they all communicate with one another that day.
“It’s a time to take stock of our situation, to realize how far we’ve come, and to encourage each other,” Meb wrote. “We don’t take opportunities here for granted.”
Happy 39th Birthday, Meb!
May 5, 2014
Dick Patrick was transfixed by the Boston Marathon long before he covered the race for the first time in 1986. His experience since then has made him only more interested in the event. Patrick contributed to Keflezighi’s book Run to Overcome, published in 2010.