By T.J. Murphy
Nearly two decades had passed since an American had won the Boston Marathon, men’s or women’s races, a drought that was broken in 2014, remarkably one year after the deadly bombing of 2013. It was broken by a 38-year-old, apparently old enough to be dropped from the Nike sponsorship rolls in 2011 even though he had won the New York City Marathon in 2009 and a silver medal in the 2004 Olympic marathon.
On paper, Meb Keflezighi, a refugee from war that he and his family barely escaped from, was lucky to be alive let alone be sponsored (he currently runs in Skechers).
But on that sunny day in Boston, one year removed from the two bombs exploded near the finish line in 2013 that killed three and injured hundreds, Keflezighi, in a red-white-and-blue race kit, crossed the finish line first, arms outstretched, having punched the tickets of a field of wonder runners, including five with PRs below 2:05 and seven below 2:06. Keflezighi was a couple of weeks from turning 39. But in a race of electrifying audacity, he didn’t even run the kind of tactical race he should of. When the field of hot shots slowed at mile 5, Keflezighi made a move that looked like a mistake: He stayed at the lead and hammered.
The day is worth recalling in these times of emotionally-charged debate about immigration policy in the USA. Whatever your opinion, the story of Keflezighi and his family is in soulful alignment with the message instilled in the Statue of Liberty.
Keflezighi was born in Eritrea, in 1975, during the middle of a 30-year war with Ethiopia. His mother lost so much blood at the home-birth she nearly died. Meb’s memories of growing up in war-stricken poverty include being so hungry that he would dig into the soil to scoop up and eat a handful of dirt. He also remembers the images of dead bodies produced by the war. Like the forceful memory of a 10-year-old boy who carried a canister of grain to the village. On his return, the boy thought he saw a toy on the ground and picked it up to play. It was a land mine. Keflezighi heard the explosion. He remembers being part of the clean up crew that picked up the scattered parts of a boy just a couple of years older than he was.
As Keflezighi details in his book, Run to Overcome, making it out of Eritrea at a time when his teenage brothers were in danger of being conscripted by Ethiopian soldiers was a life-and-death scramble of its own, more improbable by far than his Boston Marathon win. His father, Russom Sebhatu Keflezighi, a shopkeeper who had supplied the Eritrean Liberation Front, wore a big bright target on his back when it came to Ethiopian soldiers, and was the first in his family to get out and search for a new home. He walked 225 miles over seven days with little more than a bag of barley seeds, a canteen and a stick. Obstacles to evade: Soldiers that wanted to kill him, robbers, scorpions, tigers. He made it to the Sudan border then began catching rides to get to the capital Kartouam, another 300 mile leg. He found jobs and began sending money back to his family by courier. This was in 1981, when Meb was about six.
That Meb, his mom and dad and five siblings at the time would make it to San Diego in 1987 was an improbable combination of grit, luck, persistence and faith. Keflezighi, a Christian, emphasizes the latter. Yet grit was a big part of it. His dad hustled to get as much work as he could: janitorial, clerk, taxi driving. Imagine being Meb then, 12 years old and going to your first day of school not speaking English but Tigrinya, the language spoken in the Horn of Africa. The survival grit was applied to the new situation. The kids were awakened at 4:30am for English lessons with their dad. After school, it was homework, dinner, more homework.
It was the pursuit of an A in 7th grade that Meb’s talent for running was on display in a one-mile time trial for PE class. Meb wanted the A, ran hard, and ticked off a 5:20. He’d run faster the next time and was encouraged to run track. Keflezighi’s English work began to include reading the sports section of the newspaper—when he came to a word he didn’t know, it would be circled and looked up.
He ground his way through high school in such a fashion and would go on to UCLA where he would win four national championships. He would become a naturalized American citizen in 1998, the same year he would graduate, and also become a professional runner. He was encouraged to move to the marathon, which he finally did in 2002. “I hated it,” he says. “I went for the win and hit the wall hard. I never wanted to do another.” He hated it but returned for more, making the 2004 Olympic team and winning a silver medal in Athens.
decade of professional running is a long time. Keflezighi, who is now 42, has been at it now for nearly 20 years. High-mileage, injuries and the stress of racing take it’s toll. His final marathon will be this year’s NYC Marathon. It’s a good bet that he will be shooting for the stars in November and wanting to go out with a great finish.
So how does he run like he’s still a new guy?
3 LONGEVITY TIPS FROM MEB
Running for a greater purpose surely helped elevate his performance that day, but I asked Keflezighi about the fact that he was nearly 40 and able to run so well with more than 20 marathons and all the training that went into those marathons absorbed into his legs.
Below are some of the secrets, so to speak, that Keflezighi has long relied on and will rely on again in his farewell marathon on Monday. Many more can be found in his book, Meb For Mortals: How to Run, Think, and Eat like a Champion Marathoner. (Rodale Books; $19.99)
He started with this sort of over-arching principle: “Do the best you an. Treat people with respect. Never burn any bridges.”
Keflezighi’s guiding motto for longevity in running is to be proactive. Don’t wait for the injury, rather build a gap on it. “Do prehab, not rehab,” he says.
Before and after running, Keflezighi advises. At UCLA, he did a lot of partner stretching. “Now I use a rope.”
? Squat (see the May issue of LAVA for a guide on squatting.)
? Hip rotations
? Foam rolling the IT bands
? Hamstring and calf stretches with rope
Keflezighi did a lot of basic drilling in his high school years—butt kicks, bounding and such. At UCLA, a focus was on the carriage—position of the head, shoulders and spine. In recent years, he relies on running drills to get him out of the single plane of movement you use when running forward, including:
? Skipping foreward and backward
? Carioca drills
? Lateral cross-over lunges
? Lateral bent-knee walks
USE KT TAPE FOR SUPPORT AND AS “INSURANCE.”
KT Tape is a sponsor of Keflezighi’s. I asked him about how he liked to use it. One of his favorites it to use it to stabilize a joint, like the knee or ankle, when recovering from any sort of strain. “If you have a sore muscle or aches and pains, you use it for support. Not when you’re seriously injured—then you want to work with your physical therapist until you get to the point when it’s OK to run. But if it’s minor aches and pains, it’s very good to use for stability. I’ll use it as insurance in a race as well.”
For more on Meb’s advice on how to run long, fast and well forever, listen to LAVA’s Serious Triathlon podcast for a recording of the interview.