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Dave Hunter

Dave HunterDave Hunter is a track & field journalist, announcer, and broadcaster.  Dave reports on the premier track & field gatherings around the globe, frequently serves as an arena or stadium announcer for championship events, and has undertaken foreign and domestic broadcast assignments in the sport.

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Morris_160213_6919.jpgMeb Keflezighi, photo by Kevin Morris

Legendary Marathoner Is Also An Exceptional Person

October 2nd, 2016

In surveying the spectrum of sport, it is not unusual to observe certain world-class athletes who, frankly, are unpleasant human beings. Inwardly focused on perfecting their craft, these often-impatient, self-absorbed performers are frequently oblivious to the world around them, with little time for or interest in others. In contrast to that selfish group, there is Meb Keflezighi - a world class marathoner who is quite the opposite of that narrow pack of athletes who project that loathsome personality that says it's all about them.

No part of the life of Mebrahtom Keflezighi is ordinary. In 1987, his father, Russom Keflezighi, fled war-torn Eritrea in a move that would eventually bring his entire family to the United States. One of the Keflezighi children was 12 year old Meb. No one could envision that one day he would grow up to be perhaps the greatest American distance runner ever.

Once settled in southern California, Meb began his running in middle school and eventually went on to become a two-time California high school state champion. At UCLA, Meb won 4 NCAA titles under the watchful eye of Bruin coach Bob Larsen who continues to guide Meb's running career to this date.

In 1998, the year he graduated from UCLA, the 23 year old Keflezighi became a naturalized United States citizen. But his greatest accomplishments - both as an athlete and as a humanitarian - were still to come.

As a post-collegian, Meb has flourished as a versatile runner who could succeed at varied distances and on all surfaces. Continuing to progress on the track where he was a 2000 Olympian and American record holder at 10,000 meters, Meb showed he was also adept on the grass - winning three national cross country titles.

But Meb has enjoyed his greatest successes on the roads. For Meb - a 4-time Olympian and the only American ever to make 3 U.S. Olympic teams in the marathon - 3 marathon races have defined his legacy.

In the 2004 Olympic Games, Keflezighi battled over the final miles to capture the silver medal - the first American man to win an Olympic marathon medal since Frank Shorter took the silver in 1976. The Olympic marathon in Athens was a strange race, indeed - marred by a bizarre incident when an Irish ex-priest rushed onto the course and swarmed the late race leader. Keflezighi remembers the occurrence vividly. "There were three of us together. Vanderlei De Lima - the Brazilian - was in the lead. He had broken away early as I worked my way back, catching up to the lead. I was with Stefano Baldini and I said, 'Let's try to catch that guy and get 1-2.' We were pushing the pace and De Lima got attacked by a spectator who charged onto the course. It was, of course, an unfortunate thing. The Italian went on to win it, and I finished second. And I was happy to see De Lima overcome his challenges during the race and he still got the bronze medal." Looking back, Meb can clearly see how winning the silver changed his life. "Winning an Olympic medal means a lot. It was a great honor to represent our country. To be the first American marathon medalist since 1976 changed my life in way that I was recognized around the world," he explains. "Not many people know that that was only my 4th marathon ever. I was young and I felt I was making the transition at the right time." 70 days later the young marathoner came back and captured 2nd place in the New York City Marathon behind Hendrick Ramaala - a South African athlete who was unable to finish the Olympic marathon ten weeks earlier. "I was trying to prove that I was a marathoner and that I could contend and win titles," notes Meb. "That changed my life."

In 2009, after 3 prior top-10 finishes, Meb finally won the New York City Marathon - the first American to do so since Alberto Salazar won his third title in 1982. "Winning the Olympic silver medal was for our country. The Beijing Olympics, I didn't go. I tried, but I didn't make it in either the 10K or the marathon. So my New York win was personal and gratifying for me because I felt like I belonged at the Olympic Games in Beijing but if you don't make top three, you don't go," offers Keflezighi. "So I had to re-prove myself. To be able to come back and to beat the 4-time Boston champion [Robert Cheruiyot] and the silver medalist from the Beijing Olympics [Morocco's Jaquad Gharib], to win the race in a personal best time, and to become the first American winner in 27 years was huge." His New York victory did a lot to salve the wound that lingered from failing to make the 2008 Olympic team. "I couldn't wait another 4 years for the next Olympic Games. That was my personal Olympics," he reveals. "To capture the notoriety that resulted from the victory and to win it as an American was a big deal. It put me back on the big stage after my Athens silver medal."

In the 2014 Boston Marathon - just one year after terrorist bombings marred the Patriots' Day event the prior spring - Keflezighi unleashed a strategic mid-race move that propelled him to victory - the first American man to capture the laurel wreath since 1983. The inspiration and motivation behind Meb's historic 2014 Boston win were borne out of the tragic bombings that surrounded the 2013 race. "I was trying to make a transition to retirement doing a broadcasting recap for Universal Sports," explains the 22-time national champion on his Patriots' Day role in 2013. "I wanted to do thorough homework and do a good job of dissecting the race. And I left my position on the grandstand about 7 or 8 minutes before the bombing occurred. The next day, the first suspected person was supposed to be an African American with an accent. That profile went straight to me. And I got questioned at the airport on my way to Mammoth Lakes where I was living. They didn't know who I was," explains Keflezighi. "But I love my runners. As soon as I went past Security, some Boston marathoners wanted to take a picture with me." He accommodated them while sheepish TSA employees looked on.

One year later, Meb toed the line in Hopkinton sporting a bib on which he had inscribed the names of the four who perished in the 2013 bombings. "Athens was for our country. New York was for me personally to show that I could overcome obstacles and win the New York City Marathon which was my dream. And then after witnessing that horrific scene of 2013 Boston, I wanted to change something. I wanted to do something for my fellow runners. I wanted it for Boston. I wanted it for the United States. I wanted it the international sport of running," offers Keflezighi. "God just gave me the strength of the victims. And everything just came together for me and I was able to be victorious and be the first American to win Boston in 31 years. And to carry the names of the victims who died on my bib gave me a lot of inspiration."

Different athletes have brought different skills and strategies to the marathon. Some - like Rob de Castella - bring an abiding strength to the 26 mile 385 yard war of attrition. Others - such as Haile Gebrselassie - bring 5,000/10,000 meter track speed to the road battle. But might the man who didn't panic in the Athens Olympic marathon when an attacker lashed out and who later unpacked a perfect mid-race move to grab the 2014 Boston laurel wreath be the quintessential cerebral marathoner? "I hadn't thought about that. But it is a great honor. As Frank Shorter has said, 'It's a thinking man's sport.' I am a thinking man and that's the reason I have earned an Olympic medal and won Boston and New York. As Joe Vigil used to say, 'Use the 9 inches above the shoulders.'" Meb - who finished 33rd in Rio marathon when he was forced to deal with stomach problems that complicated his final Olympic appearance - knows how important a thoughtful race day strategy and clear thinking during the competition can be. "On that day and at that right moment, you have to make the best decisions: when not to go; when to go; and how to do it. There's a lot of thinking, strategy, and tactics. The marathon is not forgiving. One decision can make or break your race."

In addition to his accomplished career as a runner, Meb - who has incorporated a "Pay It Forward" attitude into his life - has been a game-changing source of inspiration and support for others. As an author and motivational speaker, Meb has brought an unshakable dedication to helping others to find balance in their own lives with healthy activity, education, community involvement, and a strong moral grounding. His MEB Foundation underscores the importance of "Maintaining Excellent Balance" in life and has aided countless others through its support of various community programs, including the Armory College Prep Program and Loma Linda's Medals of Courage Program.

As Meb's racing career draws closer to its conclusion, his many and varied accomplishments - accumulated over an impressive span of time - undergo ever deeper examination. Is the only man to ever win the Boston Marathon, the New York City Marathon, and an Olympic medal perhaps the greatest American marathoner ever? The 4-time Olympian characteristically deflects the inquiry with a humble reply. "It is a great honor to be recognized with the great people who have done amazing things with the marathon. I try to follow the footsteps of Bill Rodgers and Greg Meyer who have won Boston, Alberto Salazar who also won New York, and Frank Shorter who has won Olympic medals. I am blessed to be in this position - especially somebody who emigrated from Eritrea more for educational opportunities - and to be in the discussion with the other great American runners."

At age 41, Keflezighi is a realist and knows he is in the twilight of his illustrious running career. And he has given thought to what will be the next chapter of his life. "Athleticism is a short period of time. I have been very fortunate to have my wife's and my children's support so I don't leave the sport with regrets. Having said that, I am going to stop competing at 26 marathons," states Keflezighi who hopes to make the 2017 Boston and New York races his final two competitive marathons. "What I would like to do is what I am doing right now: go to races, make appearances, undertake speaking engagements, and conduct clinics," reveals Meb. And he can cite his reason why. "I feel really connected to people and runners. It always came naturally since I came from a family of 11 brothers and sisters, a culture that is very collective. I don't look at running as a job. It's a hobby. And I love meeting people and interacting with them. So I would like to do that. If my story could help and inspire others, I want to provide hope for so many others." Keflezighi knows his unabashed love affair with the sport can help him connect with the running community which is known for its openness. "We are approachable. That's the beauty of our sport. I am a very approachable person, I think. I want to be able to do that [connect with and inspire others]. Do I want to put food on the table? Absolutely. Is that the way to do it? Maybe. But I don't do it for that because I love it, I care for it. And I get energy from it."

It speaks volumes about Meb Keflezighi as a person that - when asked about how he would like to be remembered by the sport - he replies with a response that essentially overlooks his considerable athletic accomplishments. "I would love for people to remember me as a humble, kind, caring person. For me, I won medals and had success, but at the same time when people come in contact with me or have a dialogue, I want to make sure that's a great experience. Records are made to be broken. Titles are a temporary thing. But I hope I can convince others to be a good human being because there have been so many great human beings that have affected my life in a positive way. And I hope I have done that for others." Meb Keflezighi will undoubtedly end his storied career as one of the most accomplished, decorated, and durable American distance runners of all time. But it just may be that his demonstrated and selfless commitment to supporting and inspiring others will ultimately prove to be the more enduring segment of his legacy.

RunBlogRun Some photographs on this site have been reproduced with permission from runblogrun.com.