<
>

Meb, brother bonded by success

Merhawi Keflezighi woke in the middle of the night to hear his older brother Meb returning from a track meet. Meb's high school coach dropped him off and the door slammed, but it didn't make as much noise as Meb's excited voice as he told his father, Russom, that he had just broken the nine-minute barrier in the two-mile run.

Russom liked to take his children to Balboa Park in San Diego to play soccer and run from one exercise station to the next, and he knew Meb was a special talent. That night, however, he couldn't totally comprehend the significance of the track feat or how thrilled Meb was to run 5:20 for his first mile as a seventh-grader. It was Merhawi -- also known as 'Hawi' -- who jumped out of his bed to congratulate his older brother.

"I think on every level Meb has shown me and a lot of us that he is very special in high school, college and as a professional," Merhawi said. "There have always been moments when you think 'Oh man, he's a really good runner!' I really think that throughout his career and especially on April 21, 2014, he showed me that he is at a different level not only with athletic talent, but getting the most of it."

That night in San Diego was Hawi's first leap of excitement for Meb. The next would come on that big day last April.

The next best Keflezighi

After fleeing from Eritrea to Italy with his nine siblings, Meb settled in San Diego in 1987 and became an instant running talent. A few weeks into his first cross country season at San Diego High School, Meb was already the top runner as a freshman. The other Keflezighi brothers also all ran well, and coach Ed Ramos thought Merhawi would be the next best talent from the family.

"As a sophomore, me and this big wrestler were the last two guys on the JV team," Merhawi recalls. "That year I did get an award for most improved [after dropping] a 24-minute cross country 5K to 19 minutes. I had lots of progress, but it took a lot out of me."

Merhawi's running career would only last another season even after winning the award. He was content with leaving running behind and focusing on his studies. Russom Keflezighi always stressed the importance of putting academics before athletics, and Merhawi knew that was his way of blazing his own path.

"That one season of cross country is why I respect runners and the industry so much," Merhawi said. "I realized how hard it is and how much fulfillment there is in it. Meb and my older siblings make it look so easy, but when I tried it myself, it's really tough."

Being a fan of the Los Angeles Lakers during the Showtime era triggered the idea of pursuing a career as a basketball agent. Merhawi went to law school at UCLA and served as a manager for the men's basketball team. While Meb lived the Olympic dream early in his career -- making the 2000 and 2004 Olympic teams, winning marathon silver in '04 -- Hawi was hard at work as a law student.

"We would drive to and from San Diego together to Los Angeles," Merhawi said. "He introduced me to all of his friends, so I was like an honorary member of the track team. We just bonded a lot. That was the foundation."

"UCLA was pretty big, but if it wasn't for the athletics department, I don't know how I would've assimilated to the campus," Meb said. "I didn't want Hawi to go through that, so I introduced him to as many friends as I could."

After Meb won the silver medal in Athens, he believed it was time for a change in his representation from agent Jos Hermens and Global Sports Communications. Hermens also represented former world record holders Kenenisa Bekele and Haile Gebrselassie, so grasping the importance of a silver medal in the marathon for the United States may not have been a priority.

In Los Angeles, Merhawi was taking an international sports law class, an international entertainment law class and had completed a clinic in which he went through a mock contract negotiation with Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak. His confidence grew, and Hawo awoke one night and put aside his case studies to write a proposal to Meb to become his brother's agent.

"It was an email just letting them know of things that I thought I could do," Merhawi said. "It was from the heart. That was the beginning of the conversation. At the same time I could've said 'That's a crazy idea, I'm going back to bed,' but I felt strongly enough to write it and follow my gut instinct."

Meb mulled the idea over for a few months and received input from coach Bob Larsen, his mentor at the Mammoth Lakes (California) Track Club. Merhawi saw it as an honor to just be on the list with Hermens and agent Ray Flynn, who also entered the mix.

Meb drew up a list of pros and cons for each agent. He chose Merhawi.

Marketing 'Mebrahtom'

Within six months of Merhawi's start as Meb's agent, he worked with a marketing agency to have his brother star in a MasterCard commercial that ran during the pregame show for Super Bowl XL in 2006. Meb felt comfortable in his decision from the start of the partnership.

Still, marketing a small African-born runner with a last name that reads like eye chart was not always easy for Merhawi. When Meb's contract expired with Nike at the age of 36, the two decided to explore other options outside of the traditional companies.

Many companies had different marketing plans and saw Meb as too old and past his prime. Others felt that he was already too branded as an athlete.

Meb had deals with Sony and PowerBar, but they saw little time on his uniform due to company guidelines surrounding his Nike contract and rules set forth by the International Association of Athletics Federation and United States Track and Field.

"I think there is a disadvantage that the athletes have at this point, so we have to balance that out a little bit more and give them more opportunities," Merhawi said. "I understand there is also a perspective to protect the interest of the sponsors already in the sport."

Merhawi has become something of a maverick within the sport, negotiating contracts with nontraditional companies such as HOKA ONE ONE, Skechers and Under Armour that allow his athletes to market themselves in a more diverse way.

In 2011, Meb started that new wave by inking a deal with Skechers, and his portfolio grew incrementally after that. Merhawi has designed a jacket for Meb for the TCS New York City Marathon with logos covering every inch of his upper body for media appearances.

"You've got to carry with pride what you wear," Meb said. "We've been fortunate to have all these logos on the jacket, and people say it looks like it's a NASCAR jacket. My teammates in college always thought that should be the idea. We've executed a plan enough to make that happen."

Jumping 10 feet in the air

Meb has that silver medal from 2004, was the NYC Marathon winner in 2009, and in 2012 at age 36 became the oldest winner of the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon and went on to place fourth in the London Olympics.

"In 2009, when Meb won the New York City Marathon, I don't think Meb believed he had to do anything else in his career," Merhawi said. "I think he has a healthy perspective that everything since then has been icing on the cake. We've had five years of icing."

Meb toed the starting line at the 2014 Boston Marathon as an afterthought in the men's elite field. He had finished 23rd at the New York Marathon the previous fall, and from an agent's perspective Merhawi believes Meb never should have started that race due to a partial calf tear and a deep cut on his knee.

"I've done New York enough times that people were telling me that it wouldn't be the same without me," Meb said. "I was coming along and I wasn't as fit as I wanted to be, but there was only one way of finding out and I had to give it a shot."

So, Meb honored a commitment he made to his fans in the wake of the cancellation of the 2012 New York race due to Hurricane Sandy and Boston Marathon bombings in 2013 and ran in New York last November. He carried the memories and hopes of all those people through nearly the first 20 miles of the race before the injuries caught up to him. He slowed to a walk at times and had every incentive to drop out, but he didn't.

Those same memories of the Boston victims drove Keflezighi before this year's race. Before he headed to the starting line, he prayed. He wanted God to carry him to the same finish line that he was at just five minutes before the bombs went off in 2013.

"I remember sending a text to Ryan Hall after the 2013 finish. I said 'I think we can do this next year.' He told me we'd get after it," Meb said. "I was relaxed at the starting line and I told coach Larsen that I was going to draft until the last two or three miles because these [2 hour, 4-minute pace] guys might go crazy. Once the gun went off, everything changed."

Meb was very public about his goals prior to the race: 1) A top-three finish 2) Set a personal best 3) Victory.

The way Meb Keflezighi's mind operates, he believes he must secure a top-three spot before worrying about the victory. In Boston, he took the lead at Mile 8, trying to keep the race pace honest as three Ethiopians approached to slow things down. Meb was trying to run a personal best, though, and would not allow it to happen.

"I always tell myself 'Run to win,' " Meb said. "I really believed that I could get the best in myself, finish on the podium and get a personal best."

Merhawi, Meb's wife Yordanos and Larsen watched from television screens at the Fairmont Copley hotel as Meb pulled away from the leaders and eventually broke free by the 23rd mile. The other managers and family members in the room started getting excited for Merhawi, but he kept his calm. Representatives from marathon title sponsor John Hancock escorted the three the finish area.

"When we get to the finish line area, I see the two Kenyans catching up to my brother," Merhawi said. "The elation and excitement turned to nerves. Then I saw Meb adjust his stride and when he got towards the end of the marathon and he looked strong, I got a rush."

Merhawi's phone buzzed in his jacket pocket. Yordanos was glued to her iPhone, where she was following the online stream of the race. Larsen tried to catch a glimpse of the action while remaining stoic. They all stood in a small box surrounded by photographers and television cameras.

Larsen stepped out of the box and an organizer tried to move him back, to which he responded "That is my athlete. I am going to stand right here and watch my athlete."

"When I realized Meb was going to win, I felt like I jumped 10 feet into the sky," Merhawi said. "I remember security looked over at me like 'Okay, we have to watch this guy.'

"As soon as Meb crossed the finish line, Yordanos leaves the box and ran toward him. They went on that journey for so long, so it was a very emotional situation. No rules could stop her."

Meb accomplished all of his goals, and as he embraced his brother at the finish line the two cried together. Tears still flow today when Merhawi reflects on that moment. Shortly after that finish-line moment, though, he put his agent hat back on and was scheduling media appearances and sponsorship commitments for Meb.

The newly minted champion didn't even have a chance to shower immediately after the marathon because so many things were lined up, but Meb does recall when he finally found himself alone with Merhawi and Yordanos at the hotel.

"You couldn't ask for it any better way," Meb said. "You think about it. You imagine it. You visualize it. Then it actually happens and then I probably turned and said 'Did that really happen?"

A career fulfilled

Meb enters the 2014 New York City Marathon with the 12th-fastest personal best in an elite athlete field that includes two of the fastest marathoners in history -- Kenyans Wilson Kipsang and two-time defending NYC champ Geoffrey Mutai of Kenya. Yet, the desire to win still runs through Meb's veins at the age of 39. Why else would he isolate himself in Mammoth Lakes, away from his family for four weeks, to train at altitude?

Still, whether New York results in a victory or another 23rd-place finish, Meb's career is already 100 percent fulfilled.

"To be the only marathoner that has an Olympic medal, Boston and New York City victories is pretty significant," Meb said. "We're humans and we want more in things, but I'm completely satisfied with my career. I ran a personal best and won Boston on the most important day of marathoning after the bombings."

Making another Olympic team in 2016 would be nice. He will be 40 years old at the start line of the Olympic Trials Marathon in Los Angeles, but he's proven he can't be counted out.

Regardless of whether he makes the team or not, Merhawi has set his brother up nicely for life after running. Consider it Hawi returning a favor done for him during his senior year in high school.

The University of California-San Diego has an Upward Bound Program that provides support for students during the college admission process and graduation post-secondary institutions, and the school wanted Meb to join the program. He was unable to commit because of his busy running schedule, so he passed along Merhawi's name instead.

"Meb has always been looking out for me in that way," Merhawi said. "He's always been there whether it was getting me connected with his mentors so I could study for the SATs or helping me get a job at UCLA as a manager with the men's basketball team. As much as I say I help Meb out as his manager, we've helped each other out. I'm just returning the favor and it's part of my job."

Nine years after hiring his brother, Meb found that old pros-and-cons list as he moved out of his training house in Mammoth Lakes. He texted a photo of the list to his brother.

"I texted him that it wasn't an easy decision, but here is how I got to choose you," Meb said. "It was a reminder of what we went through."

"People probably assume it was an easy hire," Merhawi said, "but it was probably the toughest interview process I've gone through."