At the 23rd mile of the 2013 New York City Marathon, Mike Cassidy's brother called out from the sideline, "Catch Meb! Go get him!"
Cassidy looked ahead and saw an elite runner with a single-digit number on his back also struggling to finish the race. It was 2009 New York champion Meb Keflezighi.
"I was surprised because he immediately responded when I caught up to him and jumped on my shoulder to start running with me," Cassidy recalled. "He said 'All right, let's do this and work together.' Once I knew he had a little more left in the tank, I didn't have any desire to beat him. The goal was to work together in the toughest part of the race."
Cassidy got a chance to meet Keflezighi in the elite athlete tent before the race and shook hands with him at the start. "You guys should be out there running together today," Cassidy's friend joked.
Keflezighi started the race by pushing the pace with other elite runners, but he knew his body would eventually pay the price. He was dealing with a partial calf tear and a deep cut to his knee and Keflezighi's brother and agent, Merhawi, told ESPN.com that Meb should not have even started. However, he was driven to run in support of those affected by Superstorm Sandy, which had forced the cancellation of the 2012 New York race.
The Olympic silver medalist expressed those sentiments as he and Cassidy -- a Staten Island native who was a vocal critic of the decision to cancel the 2012 race -- switched off the lead and battled strong headwinds in that morning. With one mile left, Keflezighi asked Cassidy to cross the finish line hand-in-hand to demonstrate the spirit of the marathon triumphing tragedy.
"You never know who you'll get attached to whether you win, finish third or shooting for the top 10. I was hanging on for dear life and when somebody supports you to finish like that it really does help. " Keflezighi said. "He told me that was the highest honor of his running career which meant a lot to me."
In his postrace blog entry described the moment as playing basketball with Michael Jordan, "only it was Game 7 of the NBA Finals and he had just passed me the ball."
"The fact of getting to run with someone that is a hero to me and has accomplished so much was an absolutely incredible feeling," Cassidy said. "Going into the last incline in Central Park with the crowd around us, I felt like my legs didn't hurt and I was just floating there."
They crossed the finish line together in 2 hours, 23 minutes. Keflezighi thanked Cassidy for running with him, and New York Road Runners CEO Mary Wittenberg shared kind sentiments she witnessing the moment unfold. The two met with the media and then parted ways.
For Christmas, Cassidy's parents gave him a poster of the finish line photo that hangs in his home. Balancing his work life doing data analysis of public policy for the Century Foundation with his goal of running at the Olympic Trials, he looks to that poster as a motivator to get out the door for his daily runs.
Plans to toe the line in Los Angeles for the Olympic Marathon Trials with Keflezighi are on hold at the moment as Cassidy recovers from injury. He skipped a spring marathon with the hope of running a fast time at Grandma's Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota, but a strained piriformis forced him to withdraw from the race. Cassidy has not run a step in the last two months due to a hip injury.
"The plan is for me to do a marathon in the winter or spring depending on how my leg recovers and then do everything possible to hit that 2:18," Cassidy said. "The way I see it, I have two shots left at it. The last time I qualified was about three days before the window closed, so I'm used to waiting until the last minute."
Keflezighi could have a few bits of advice to share with Cassidy on his comeback. After last fall's marathon, Keflezighi stayed in touch and shared his training by email. In March, they were reunited at the NYC Half, and Meb confessed that he was a little banged up physically and couldn't run as fast as expected. He was saving his legs for the Boston Marathon. Two nights before Boston Keflezighi sent Cassidy an email saying he was ready to go on Patriots' Day, but Cassidy didn't figure that meant a victory.
"Sometimes watching that race in Boston, I feel like that was the greatest day of my life," Cassidy said. "It was so incredible to see an American win, and it wasn't just any American. Meb represents the best of what being an American citizen stands for."
Cassidy's friends joke that Meb's victory means Cassidy should also be able to win Boston, given that he finished one place ahead of Meb in New York.
This year, Cassidy and his fiancée will be moving into a new apartment on First Avenue the night before the marathon. He plans on cheering runners along the course at the 18- and 23-mile markers. Keflezighi will be among those he will be rooting for.
Although Keflezighi enters with the 12th-fastest personal best in the field, Cassidy would not be surprised by a podium finish for the 39-year-old.
"Meb has shown that when a race is about winning and not about the clock, he has to be the favorite going in," Cassidy said. "I expect that he'll have a great performance. I hope he doesn't feel too much pressure since he's already accomplished all that there is. You can't take issue with his résumé."