Keflezighi was a favorite to make the US marathon team for Beijing. Experts liked his chances. So did he.
At the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, Keflezighi earned a silver medal and brought America its first men’s Olympic marathon medal since 1976 when Frank Shorter placed second at the Montreal Games.
More recently, Keflezighi had run one of his finest long workouts two weeks prior to the Trials and was in phenomenal shape.
Keflezighi only had to finish among the top three to make the team that day, but he was determined to win.
Thirteen miles into the multi-loop race through Central Park, Keflezighi was in the lead pack when Ryan Hall decided to make a move.
Just then, Keflezighi said, “I felt my calves tighten up. I thought, ‘Okay, I’m not going to win. I’m just going to try to make the team.”
“I had to make a mental decision: To separate myself from the other guys or not,” he said.
By mile 17, Keflezighi was in a race for third place. He poured water on his head to cool off on an already-blustery day. His body went into freezing mode. It started to shut down.
By mile 20 or 21 he was beyond bonking. “I almost stopped and cried,” he said. “I don’t know if it was because of the pain or emotion from seeing signs that said, ‘Meb we love you.’ You know, New York City is where I made my name.”
In 2002, Keflezighi chose to make his professional marathon debut in New York City. He had already been a member of the 2000 Olympic Team at 10,000 meters and ran a personal best in Sydney despite having the flu, but in New York, he said, “That’s where I got my Ph.D. I was leading at about mile 17 or 18 – like Alberto Salazar in his first marathon [in New York in 1980]. I thought, Alberto won [his debut], Why can’t I?” Meb ultimately finished ninth. Two years later he returned, just 70 days after taking the Olympic silver medal in Athens, and finished second in the 2004 New York City Marathon with a personal best time of 2:09:53.
But the reality in 2007 was different: His right calf was killing him and his body was trying to compensate. The pain spread to his glutes and his right hip.
His coach, Bob Larsen, was hoping he would stop and save his body, but Meb soldiered on. He finished eighth in a time of 2:15:09. Not more than a minute later, someone approached and asked, “Hey, did you hear about Ryan?”
Meb thought he meant Ryan Hall, the race winner, but the man was referring to Ryan Shay, Meb’s friend and seat-mate on the bus that morning.
“I expected him to tell me he had fallen down,” Keflezighi said. Instead, the 28-year-old Shay had collapsed about five and a half miles into the race and was pronounced dead at a hospital while the race was still underway.
Keflezighi dropped to the ground, reeling with grief. “I couldn’t control myself,” he said.
Losing Shay quickly put losing the race into perspective.
Yes, it was shocking that the 2004 Olympic silver medalist wouldn’t be able to run the marathon in Beijing but he thought, “That’s it. I’m not making excuses, especially when a good friend is gone from the world,” he said.
Keflezighi couldn’t walk the next day, and his right ankle and right leg were so swollen that he couldn’t board a plane for Shay’s funeral in Michigan. He remained in contact with Shay’s widow, Alicia, however, and soon set his goal on competing in the 10,000 meters at the U.S. Olympic Trials – Track and Field in Eugene, Oregon.
So on July 4, the Eritrea-born, San Diego-raised, UCLA-educated, father of two (and brother to 10), will stand on the track and wait to begin his only remaining chance to makes his third consecutive Olympic team.
To qualify for Beijing, Keflezighi, 33, must finish among the top three at the Trials. He is expected to do so, but he is not the pre-emptive favorite to win. On June 8, in Eugene, Oregon, Abdi Abdirahman, another two-time U.S. Olympian who was expected to make the 2008 marathon team, nearly broke Keflezighi’s seven-year-old American record of 27:13:98, coming 3.01 seconds shy of tying it.
Keflezighi, meanwhile, has been completely absent from the racing scene since November 3 while recovering from lingering musculoskeletal problems in his right hip area from the Trials for marathon.
A flare-up this spring forced Keflezighi to withdraw from the 2008 London Marathon, and although he has since recovered, Larsen, his coach for the past 14 years, said, “It put us behind schedule.”
“For the past one-and-a-half months, he’s been doing very good training at Mammoth [Lakes, Calif.],” explained his younger brother and agent, Merhawi.
“He’s definitely in shape,” Merhawi said. “But he’s racing against time.”
Aimee Berg is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.