ATLANTA – Starting dead last in the Peachtree Road Race, Boston Marathon champion Meb Keflezighi had a lot of catching up to do.
His goal: Passing 22,500 people in the 10K race en route to raising $75,000 for the Atlanta Track Club’s inaugural Kilometer Kids Charity Chase.
Keflezighi, the 2004 Olympic marathon silver medalist, won his personal race with room to spare. He and his five escorts, who each carried a sign that read “Meb Passed Me,” overtook 22,780 participants.
“I heard, ‘Go Meb Go,’ or ‘USA,’” said Keflezighi, who wore a USA baseball cap with 12 on the side from the London 2012 Olympic Games. “A lot of runners had their cell phone with them, but by the time they wanted to take it out and take a picture, I was gone.”
While the leaders set out at 7:30 a.m. on the Fourth of July, Keflezighi had to cool his heels until after the 21st wave of runners left the starting line.
That meant he began at 9:15 a.m., when only about 35,000 of the 60,000 entrants were still, so to speak, in the running.
“It is really impressive, and the fact that he did it with the common people, that’s cool,” said Charlene McLaughlin, who ran with her 12-year-old son Liam. “He didn’t run it with the marathon royalty; he ran it with the regular people.”
At the back of the pack, “It was quiet, but it got louder and louder and louder,” Keflezighi said with a laugh. “It was fun. It was the first time I did that and I felt blessed to have the opportunity to do it.”
Yet the world’s largest 10K felt more like the world’s largest obstacle course to the 39-year-old runner.
Plunging into the mass of humanity, he had to maneuver around runners and walkers who were so slow they didn’t expect to finish the race in under 2 hours.
“It still was congested, so there needs to be an HOV lane,” Keflezighi joked, “and then I would have passed a lot more people.”
Running from the front, Christo Landry won the elite race with a time of 28:25, while Amy Hastings, a 2012 Olympian in the 10K, won the women’s race in 32:16.
“I just hope he gets through it unscathed,” Hastings said of Keflezighi. “That’s an incredible thing he’s doing. It’s for charity and it’s going to be so much fun. He’s going to have people cheering him the whole way and it’ll be awesome as long as he can get through without falling or running into someone.”
Keflezighi’s official time was 38:58, 11 minutes slower than his personal best on the roads.
Landry called Keflezighi’s task “pretty courageous. I’m just wondering how he’s able to weave through everyone.”
But Landry didn’t mind Keflezighi starting 60,000 runners behind him. “Any time you don’t have to race the Boston Marathon champion,” he said, “you got a little lucky there.”
While some observers estimated that Keflezighi would have to run more than 7 miles to cover the 6.2-mile course, he checked the pedometer on his watch and said he’d traversed only 6.3 or 6.4 miles.
“It wasn’t smooth; it was like if you throw a cup or a stick on the river and it just goes like this,” Keflezighi said, waving his hand in a fluid, yet forward, motion. “It never goes back.”
Keflezighi, the only man to win the New York Marathon (2009), Boston Marathon (2014) and an Olympic medal, said he had to use running skills that weren’t necessary last year when he started at the front and placed 12th with a time of 28:53.
“It was almost like playing football,” said the 5-foot-7 Keflezighi. “I never played football, but you see people going left and right. It was a lot of agility on my part.”
He almost needed to wear pads.
“I accidentally almost hit @runmeb in the head today while spectating at #PTRR,” one person tweeted. “SORRY! #MebPassedMe lol (I never realized how small he is).”
Social media tracked Keflezighi’s progress on the course.
One runner tweeted, “It would be an honor to be passed by Meb! Also means at 1 point I was beating him. #dreaming.”
While some people considered it an honor to be passed, others were determined to get to the finish line before Keflezighi did.
“I don’t care who beat me since I’m old and slow,” said David Mardis, 65, who was passed by Keflezighi’s group at about the 5-mile mark. “It was great, they were off to the side, not interfering with anybody and they looked good.”
Rich Kenah, who became Peachtree Race director in February, said he wanted to get Keflezighi involved after watching him become the first American to win the Boston Marathon in 31 years.
The Kilometer Kids program encourages children ages 7-12 to achieve health and fitness through running. “That way they can be better students and athletes,” said Keflezighi.
The native of Eritrea, whose family moved to the United States, recalls running his first mile in a seventh-grade PE class. He got an A, a T-shirt and a way of life.
Keflezighi, who now lives in San Diego, was also eager to give back to the Atlanta Track Club, which several years ago donated a van to his training program in Mammoth Lakes, California. He called the club “a big contributor to my success.”
Now that Keflezighi has run from the front and the back at Peachtree, he can foresee doing it both ways again.
“Next time,” he said, “I’m so competitive I’d like to give it a shot at winning it all.”
But for this Fourth of July, it was enough to be the champion for the Kilometer Kids.
Final fundraising figures have not been released by the Atlanta Track Club. Online donations will still be accepted through next week.
Karen Rosen is an Atlanta-based sportswriter who has covered 14 Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since 2009.