MEB KEFLEZIGHI OPENS the door to a vast hotel suite more than 40 stories above midtown Manhattan. A sitting room, multiple bedrooms, a bar and a conference space wrap around one corner of the building. A fruit basket sits on a grand table. Tasteful art adorns the muted blue-gray walls. A sunlit slice of Central Park, where Keflezighi has crossed the finish line of the New York City Marathon on 10 previous occasions, glows through the windows like a sunken oasis among the skyscrapers.
Mundane objects are scattered across the floor in an accidental still life: a regulation softball, a lacrosse ball, a piece of rope, resistance bands and a length of PVC pipe wrapped in worn "Team USA" physio tape. Keflezighi packed them, as he always does, to use as stretching and massage props on his 42-year-old body. "Gotta have the tools,'' Keflezighi says before settling onto the couch.
His room is a perk bestowed by the race organization, part of the royal reception Keflezighi -- one of the most successful and beloved figures in distance running history -- is getting this week on the eve of his 26th and final competitive marathon. But he's racing on Sunday, not riding on a parade float. He has invested all but one day of the past six weeks living and training in Mammoth Lakes, California, away from his wife and three daughters in San Diego.
This is the last two-tenths of a mile on Keflezighi's personal course. He intends to sprint, not jog, down the same stretch where he gutted out his first marathon in 2002, and no one is going to pace him there out of sentiment.
"My expectations are high," Keflezighi says. "Can I run a 2:12:35 like I did 15 years ago? Can I finish in the top 10, the top three?" Then he answers his own questions. "It depends on how the race unfolds. I won't go for time -- I never do."
One of Keflezighi's most treasured possessions is a photograph inscribed with a quote by triple Olympic gold medalist Emil Zatopek of Czechoslovakia: "If you want to run, run a mile. If you want to experience a different life, run a marathon." It would be hard to find anyone who has traveled a more extraordinary path in the sport than Keflezighi, from his East African birthplace of war-ravaged Eritrea to his current perch overlooking the Avenue of the Americas.
Keflezighi's friend and training partner Ryan Shay gave him that photo of the two of them before Keflezighi left for the 2004 Athens Olympics.
It's been 10 years since Keflezighi targeted the 2007 U.S. Olympic marathon trials held in New York on a different course, looking for a chance to confirm his 2004 silver-medal performance. "You've got this," his wife, Yordanos, told him before the race. "But in the marathon, there's no, 'You got this,'" he says. "You've got to earn it. The marathon is a mysterious one.''
Pain from a source Keflezighi couldn't identify sapped him and he finished eighth. He collapsed moments later, sobbing, after learning that Shay's heart had given out earlier that day. The anniversary is on his mind. He got a decade that Shay did not. Keflezighi has treated the run of life over that time as a privilege, wringing meaning and joy from races even when they weren't championships.
He won in New York in 2009, and he won in Boston in 2014, the year after the bombings. He clasped hands with Staten Island runner Mike Cassidy in Central Park in 2013, when he finished 23rd, and with former Dartmouth University runner Hilary Dionne in Boston in 2015, when he finished eighth. He made his bad day a great one for them, celebrating common accomplishment rather than his own uncommon gift.
This is the duality Keflezighi will leave behind: 24 years of splits and placements and a career that defies quantification.
SOME NUMBERS THAT help tell Keflezighi's story:
225: Straight-line distance, in miles, walked by his father, Russom, to the Sudanese border, fleeing the civil war so he could make arrangements for his family to follow. "He said it was closer to 300, 350, because he had to do zigzags, hiding and all those things," Keflezighi said.
5 minutes, 20 seconds: His first timed mile, age 13, at Theodore Roosevelt Middle School in San Diego.
141: His peak weight as a teenager, in pounds. "Growing up poor, I wanted to make up for the time lost. So I was eating abnormally too much. I'd have French toast, pancakes, cereal, bananas and whatever else for breakfast, and go to class when I was at UCLA, and then come back and have pasta, pizza, sandwich for lunch, and then have dinner -- make your own pizza, spaghetti and whatever. It wasn't smart. Freshman 15, if I wasn't running, would have been freshman 50 for me ... you see it, you eat it." He races at about 121 pounds now and is 5-foot-5.
23: Years he has been coached by the same man, Bob Larsen, who recruited him to UCLA. Also his total number of national championships in track, road and cross-country events.
19: Years since he was sworn in as a U.S. citizen.
28: U.S. drought, in years, between Frank Shorter's 1976 Olympic silver medal in the marathon and Keflezighi's silver in 2004.
27: U.S. drought, in years, between Alberto Salazar's 1982 New York City Marathon win and Keflezighi's 2009 championship.
0: Amount of appearance fee offered by Boston Marathon organizers in 2011, the year Nike dropped him. He declined to enter the race and spent seven months without a shoe deal before signing with Skechers, where he is currently under contract through 2023.
31: U.S. drought, in years, between Greg Meyer's 1983 Boston Marathon win and Keflezighi's 2014 championship.
36: His age when he won the 2012 U.S. Olympic trials in Houston, the oldest man ever to do so.
2: Pushups he did just shy of the finish line of the Rio de Janeiro Olympic marathon course. Plagued by stomach issues throughout the race, he slipped and fell forward on wet pavement as he was about to finish 33rd but converted the moment from awkward to viral.
16: His favorite mile marker on the New York City course, where runners turn north into the man-made urban canyon of First Avenue after crossing the Queensboro Bridge: "The best of the best are going through the sound of thunder. I have shown my talent there, others have shown their talent there. You wouldn't want to be anywhere else at that moment in time. You can smell the finish line. You know someone's gonna make a move.''
KEFLEZIGHI MADE TIME for me this week in part because of a conversation we had in another race hotel a few years ago, when the normal distance between reporter and athlete evaporated.
We were both trapped in the Fairmont Copley Plaza in Boston, two blocks from the marathon finish line, the afternoon of April 15, 2013, after the bombs went off. Horrified by the television footage, frightened, claustrophobic and frustrated at being locked down and unable to leave the building to report, I walked into the lobby bar to find someone to interview and saw Keflezighi sitting with a large group of people including his brother and manager, Merhawi.
The opulent hotel felt like a gilded cage that day, a surreal, high-ceilinged shelter from what was going on outside. Keflezighi, injured and unable to enter the race that year, had spent several hours greeting people in the finish-line VIP area. His voice cracked as he spoke to me and showed me pictures he'd shot with his smartphone. I used some of what he said in my column.
After Keflezighi won in Boston a year later, I began hearing from friends that he was mentioning me in his public appearances. I had asked him that day whether he'd come back for this race. He had told me he would, and uttering it in that moment crystallized his goal to win the race. Those quotes didn't make my story. I had asked every elite runner I encountered that same question and they'd all said yes. But only one returned and won.
I felt sheepish when I thought back on it. I'd blurted a question that sprang from my own state of fear -- Would you want to come back, after what just happened? -- to a man who had picked his way through body parts and ruined buildings as a small child back in Eritrea. Of course he wouldn't be afraid to run down Boylston Street.
I tell him this in his suite in Manhattan and he does what he does, which is put people at ease. He recalls hearing the first explosion and thinking there might have been a construction accident. A race staffer with a radio told him differently. The next few minutes fogged over with anxiety as Keflezighi realized his brother might be in danger. He doesn't remember how long it took for them to reunite.
"You come to the U.S. for a place of safety and pursuit of excellence," he says. "The bombing took me back to Eritrea, where there was war and you don't know what tomorrow brings. How can it be possible?
"When you asked me, I said, 'I have to come back to support, but I hope to be healthy enough to win it for the people.' When you say it to someone, it's a committed thing."
Few distance runners have kept as many promises to themselves as Keflezighi has. He has been motivated by hope, anger, sadness and pure obstinacy at various times in his career, adjusted tactics on the fly, endured and transcended absurd questions about whether he was American enough. Whatever time he runs and wherever he finishes this weekend, he has finally contradicted his own adage about the race. He's got this.
One of the many reasons the marathon suits Keflezighi is that it goes off early in the day. He hates afternoon runs. "I like to get up in the morning, have a cup of tea and go," he says. At dawn Sunday, he'll arise in a space loftier than he ever envisioned.