NEW YORK – Most victory laps don’t last 26.2 miles. But Meb Keflezighi isn’t most runners.
The only person to win the Boston Marathon (2014), the New York City Marathon (2009) and an Olympic medal (silver in Athens in 2004), the man simply known as Meb in the running world is calling it a career – appropriately on his 26th asking of one of sport’s most harrowing feats: the marathon.
Sunday the famed New York City Marathon that victory lap for Meb, racing for a final time at the professional level and, for much of the race, hanging with the lead pack. Keflezighi – as he has done throughout his career – did the unexpected: Staying with the best of the best for nearly 20 miles, clad in fluorescent orange shorts, a pair of white compression socks and a bib that simply read “Meb,” as it has for much of his career.
It wasn’t, however, the fairytale finish he wanted. He didn’t win or finish in the top three, instead crossing the finish line in 11th place overall. He collapsed there and was surrounded by his family, including his wife Yordanos and their three daughters.
But after all he’s been through – and all he’s done for distance running – Meb Keflezighi didn’t need a fairytale finish on this day. That’s because his story is that of real-world makings: Born in the African nation of Eritrea as one of 11 kids in a village without electricity, his family moved first to Italy to escape war and then – eventually – to San Diego. He ran his first mile at the age of 12 in middle school, clocking in at just around 5 minutes and 30 seconds. He became a U.S. citizen in 1998, attending UCLA and winning a handful of NCAA titles along the way.
Fifteen years after he chose the New York Marathon as his debut marathon in 2002 (“It’s my first and last… it was brutal,” he said at the time), he raced for a poetic 26th time on Sunday in a fitting farewell to the sport of elite racing.
“I have a huge sense of relief,” he said on ESPN2. “I’m so thankful… God gave me more than I can handle. I’ve been blessed.”
The highlights of Keflezighi’s career are too many to fit to page. He made his Olympic debut in Sydney in 2000 in the 10,000-meter, then – after that 2002 New York debut – switched gears to the marathon and earned the silver medal at the Olympic Games Athens 2004, the first American man to place in the top three at the Games since 1976.
His crowning moments, however, came in the twilight years of his career. At age 34 he improbably won in 2009 in New York, then five years later – and 12 months after being blocks away from the Boston Marathon bombings as a spectator – he triumphed with the four victims names’ of that attack scribbled on his bib. It was deemed USA Track & Field’s Inspirational Performance of the Year, and Keflezighi himself calls it the best moment of his career. He was 38 and the race’s oldest winner ever.
It was a win that embodied the spirit of Meb: He won in Boston the year after the marathon finish line had been turned into a horrific scene of terror at the hands of a pair of cowards. He said he was driven to succeed to bring joy to a city (and country) that was reeling from what had happened a year earlier. Tears streamed down his face from the time he crossed the finish line until he had the winner’s medal around his neck.
Inside running, Meb is simply known as such: Meb. He spent the last week in New York being honored by sponsors and running organizations, maintaining perhaps the busiest schedule of any competitor. He was awarded with the Abebe Bikila Award, as well, given to an individual who has made an outstanding contribution to the sport of distance running.
A video compiled by one of his sponsors included messages of congratulations from the likes of Kobe Bryant, Rob Gronkowski and Apolo Ohno, among others. One of Meb’s daughters congratulated him in the same video and then said she couldn’t wait to spend more time with him. Meanwhile, the hashtag #TYMeb (thank you, Meb) on social media was full of thanks from fans from around the sport.
Sunday’s race in New York might go down as one of his favorite moments, as well. As he streamed down 57th Street before making his final turn into Central Park, Keflezighi waved to cheering fans. He blew kisses and mouthed “Thank you!” He also made the sign of the cross, something he often did when crossing the finish line itself.
“The crowd got me through it today,” he said. “I wouldn’t have been able to do it without my family and everyone here supporting me.”
It mirrored in a certain sense his race at the 2012 Olympics in London: He finished off the podium in fourth, but called it one of the best efforts of his career. He passed some 13 other racers in the second half of that race.
He would finish 33rd in Rio last year at the Games, his fourth and final Olympics. At 41 he was the oldest American marathoner in Olympic history. Tripping at the finish line, he did push-ups to save the moment – and to celebrate. Stomach problems had forced him to stop seven times during the race. But, he just kept going.
Keflezighi estimates he’s run over 120,000 miles in his career, nearly 300 of those being in the New York marathon itself, with Sunday being his elite record 11th running of it. His name has become synonymous with the sport, and the lessons it’s taught him now spread across his life.
“Life is a journey,” he said in New York this week. “Marathon is a journey.”
It has been a journey for the surprise women’s winner, 36-year-old American Shalane Flanagan, as well, her victory making her the first U.S. woman to win the elite race here since 1977. On Sunday, she owed much of her success and winning mentality to Meb.
“I feel lucky and blessed to run in what I consider ‘the Meb era,’” she told reporters after her win. “He’s always smiling; he has the best giggle that I’ve ever heard. Boston is my hometown and he was a part of healing after the bombings in 2013. His performance meant the world to me (in 2014). He’s a special person. Today I thought, ‘Be like Meb as much as you can.’ He’s the person you want your kids to emulate and I want to emulate Meb. I was trying to keep it together those final few miles.”
As was Meb. The 42-year-old said his goal was to stay in the lead pack through until mile 23 or 24. He almost did that, dropping off from the lead around mile 20. He, at one point early on, was the race leader.
“Today my mind said, ‘Go,’ but my body said, ‘I can’t go,’” he explained. “There were no push-ups today. I gave all I had today. The body, when it is 42 years old… it’s so hard to do, to keep up with the best in the world. At this point you just try to inspire others.”
Flanagan and Abdi Abdirahman, the top U.S. men’s finisher, assured that Meb had done just that.
“I learned from Meb,” said Abdirahman, who finished seventh overall. “He just never gives up.”
He is giving up, at least in terms of elite running. There will be no 27th marathon, no more improbable finishes or unexpected wins. He joked that he’ll most miss the presidential hotel suite he stayed in this past week, but then got more sentimental in his farewell, thanking the friends (there are a lot of them) that he has made along the way.
Now he’s moving on. No more (competitive) racing, but instead to spending more time with his family and coaching and working with his charitable cause, the MEB Foundation.
“It’s an honor to be called a role model,” he said. “To have a standing ovation like I did (at the finish line). I want to give back because the sport has given me so much. I’m going to spend time with my wife and kids. I missed out on a lot and sacrificed a lot. I always believe if you surround yourself with positive people then good things will happen.”
But out of good people came greatness in Meb. Not just in his results but in the person that the running world idolizes in three letters. His 26th 26.2-mile race at age 42 had one more ripple of poetic genius: A marathon is 42 kilometers.
It’s like he planned it all this way.
“What makes me want to retire?” he asked, rhetorically. “My brain is full from over-thinking things. My body is not able to recover as it used to. I did it for as much as I could while having fun, which was always my goal in high school and college. With New York being my first and last… it worked out being my 26th and final marathon.”
“The metaphor of sports stays with you for life. You want to take that anywhere with you. Sports unites us more than anything else, and that’s the beauty of it.”
Thanks for uniting all of us, too, Meb. There won’t ever be another like you – or at least none that will be allowed to wear his or her first name on a bib. In short: TY, Meb.