Meb Keflezighi: A Look Back At One Of America’s Greatest
On Sunday we saw Meb Keflezighi’s final race, and with it came the end of an era. He has been around seemingly forever. I think the first time I saw him run on television was twenty-four years ago in the Foot Locker cross country championships.
His career is staggeringly long. No marathoner in world history has been able to maintain a competitive level for as long as Meb did. What’s more amazing is that Meb was only a marathoner for the last half of his career.
I’ve broken down Meb’s career into six distinct phases, and each has one or more remarkable achievements. Here is a brief recap of each, along with a compilation of his major races.
Meb’s first running of note came twenty-seven years ago as a high school freshman when he took 25thin the Division I race at the California state championship meet. Over the next three years he made solid and consistent improvement, going to 17th to 3rd to 1st, and made similar improvement in the post-season Foot Locker competitions. His runner-up finish to Adam Goucher at the 1993 finals was faster than the winners in all but one of the six previous finals.
He made a bigger mark on the track. He doubled in the 1600 and 3200 at the California state championships as a junior, taking 3rd and 2nd, and pulled off the rare double win as a senior. He won another double at the National Scholastic Invitational and Track and Field News named him All-American in both distance events. He was considered a better prospect as a miler than as a long-distance type. His 4:05.58 at the NSI was the fastest mile by a high schooler in seven years, and he showed some good speed with his 58.9 final lap at the CIF.
Meb’s longevity can be summed up by noting that his Bruin teammates included Ato Boldon (4-time Olympic medalist, retired since 2004 and NBC announcer since 2007) and John Godina (3-time World Champion, retired since 2007 and coach since 2009).
Meb was an excellent national-level competitor right from the start. He never finished worse than 15th at the NCAA Cross Country Championships, and was also track All-American as a freshman with his 5th-place finish in the 5k at the outdoor NCAAs. Coach Bob Larsen gradually moved him up in racing distance as the years went by, and he won the NCAA 5k/10k double in his junior year and followed it up with an NCAA XC win that fall. He ran faster as a senior but dropped back to 4th at the NCAA in both the 5k and 10k. Meb still ran the 1500 in dual meets throughout college and lost just one of those races, to teammate Mark Hauser in the USC-UCLA dual his senior year.
PRO CAREER – PART I (TRACK STAR)
Meb’s first “pro” race was the 1998 USA Track and Field Championships, where he finished 4th in the 10,000 meters. It was the first time he’d ever run in a USATF event because he hadn’t been eligible: he didn’t receive his US citizenship until July 2, 1998. Three weeks later he wore his first Team USA uniform while finishing sixth in the 10k at the Goodwill Games.
In 2001 he broke the then-15-year-old American Record in the 10,000 meters, and the previous summer his 13:11.77 made him #4 on the all-time US list. He ran a wide range of races and distances, from outdoor track to indoor track to cross country to the roads and ranging from 3000 meters to 15k. He ran for the USA at the Olympics, the World Championships, the World Cross Country Championships, the World Cup, the Goodwill Games, the Pan-American Games, and the Chiba International Ekiden. While he was rarely in the hunt to win an international competition, he was a legitimate distance running star.
PRO CAREER – PART II (BECOMING A MARATHONER)
Meb’s career as a marathoner began at the 2002 New York City race, where he made the predictable rookie mistake of starting too fast and running out of gas. He ran another a year later in Chicago, but 2004 was where he really excelled. He took second at the Olympic Trials, then stunned the world with a silver medal at the Athens Olympics. Three months later he came back to New York and finished second, which finished up the best year by an American men’s marathoner since the early 80s.
While Meb was transitioning to the marathon in these years, he did not give up on track racing. He continued to run in major 10k races like the USATF Championships and the Van Damme Memorial as well as the occasional 5k.
This portion of Meb’s career came to a close with the Olympic Trials in November 2007, where he finished a well-beaten eighth while unknowingly running with a pelvic stress fracture. It was easy to think it was over, and it would have been an excellent career all by itself. But as we know, Meb was nowhere close to being done.
PRO CAREER – PART III (DON’T CALL IT A COMEBACK)
Meb did not race again for eight months, starting off at the Olympic Trials 10k where he finished 13th(while longtime friendly rival Abdi Abdirahman won). He ran just three more races that year, and Nike declined to continue his sponsorship.
He took that as a challenge and was determined to prove he wasn’t finished. He went back to the pattern that worked before: half marathon and cross country early in the year, then summer races of 10k or so on the track and the road. He ran well at the London Marathon, then shocked everyone with a win at the New York City Marathon.
After that year, his racing pattern changed. He ran fewer tune-up races and only on the road. The quality of his marathoning did not change, though, taking top-six finishes in all of his World Marathon Major attempts, winning the 2012 Olympic Trials, and finishing fourth at the 2012 Olympics. He is the only man in history to finish in the top four in Olympic marathons held eight years apart.
PRO CAREER – PART IV (IT’S NOT OVER ‘TILL IT’S OVER)
The final phase of Meb’s career began in the spring of 2013, nine months after his Olympic heroics. That year ended with a rough day at the New York City Marathon, where he finished 23rd – and bolstered his nice-guy reputation by running the last few miles with Michael Cassidy, a sub-elite shocked to find himself paced by a legend.
So it was understandable that the favorites in the 2014 Boston Marathon thought of Meb like Randy “The Ram” Robinson (“he’s washed up, he’s finished, he’s through”) and let him get a big lead. And it was understandable that all of us watching that race thought that the fairy tale was over when his lead began to dwindle in the closing miles. Of all of the great moments in his career, this was probably the greatest: winning in Boston, just one year after bombs killed three and injured 264 more.
Even that wasn’t the last gasp. Besides three more top-ten finishes in Boston and New York, he took second at the 2016 Olympic Trials marathon and became one of only two dozen men who have run Olympic marathons twelve years apart.