Meb Keflezighi, 39, made one heck of a run in 2014, finishing fourth in the New York City Marathon and winning Boston only a year after the bombings at the finish line. A three-time Olympian and a silver medalist, Keflezighi has broken the tape at a marathon before, in NYC in 2009 and the Olympic trials in 2012.
But Boston was different for the proud American. At age 12, Keflezighi settled in San Diego after leaving war-torn Eritrea, and at 23, he became a U.S. citizen. Sixteen years later, he became Boston's hero, leaving in his trail those who would deny he is a "real" American.
THE MAG: I'm sure like most elite athletes, you visualize your goals. Was there a special kind of visualization that you did for Boston?
KEFLEZIGHI: I wasn't in the best shape ever for me, but mentally I was, emotionally I was. When the Red Sox won the 2013 World Series and put the trophy on the finish line, I was watching on TV, and I said I wanted to do that for the runners. I told my wife, "Boston deserves this."
Can you tell us about the key moments on the course?
I usually like to get out front. I don't want to get tackled, don't want to trip. Mile 5 was one of the crucial ones, where I saw the defending champion Lelisa Desisa's mechanics. He just didn't look efficient to me. I saw that, and I thought: "Well, I'm gonna give it my best. I came to Boston to win, podium or run a personal best. I'm gonna do it if I have to do it by myself." So I made that move, and Josphat Boit went with me.
At eight miles, it was just Boit, and I thought, "I don't know what they're worried about, but we're gonna push the pace." So he went with me; he helped me out quite a bit. That was huge. Because I was like: "Should I wait for the group or should I go with him, because he's moving pretty well? There are big hills ahead." I looked back, and they were way back.
At about 14, 15, he clipped me from behind and kind of tapped me. I thought he was getting fatigued. That was the moment I needed to make a breakthrough. At 16, I ran a 4:30 mile. Then at 17, at the fire station, I was in such pain with foot issues. I was hurting pretty bad.
But I just said: "God, help me with this, this is for the United States. Give me the strength of the victims, give me the support of the chanting of the crowd. Just keep going. One hill at a time, one step at a time."
Mile 21 was fine, a little breezy, but at 22 I was pushing so much that I got a cramp on my left side. At 23, something told me to look to the right. Instinct. I looked and said: "Oh my gosh. It's an orange shirt behind me."
I had a vision it was going to come down to Boylston Street in this race. If I was gonna win, it was gonna come down to that last stretch, outkicking somebody. And I really thought it was going to be Gebre Gebremariam. I was thinking: "Dude, let me win this damn race. It's gonna be huge for me and the United States." That's kind of the selfish thought that you have.
So I didn't know who it was [it was 2:05 marathoner Wilson Chebet], and three thoughts came to my mind: Slow down and save it for Boylston, try to maintain that gap, or try to extend that gap. He's gonna have the mental edge if he comes up to me, and how many others are coming?
At 24, a mile later, I was digging so deep. There's a picture of me holding my mouth. I was almost ready to throw up, ready to catch my puke instead of holding it in.
Once you make a left on Boylston, it's 600 meters that look like 300 meters.
I kept digging. With one mile to go, I looked back a lot. Am I maintaining? Am I expanding? And at that point I said: "He's not here yet, so he must not be feeling as great. Keep pushing." Just over 1K to go, there's an overpass. I like the mile mark, but I don't like the 1K mark because he's probably thinking, "Three minutes of pain, I can catch this guy in three minutes, suffer for three minutes."
So I thought: "Do the same. Three minutes of pain. It was downhill, accelerate my cadence, my rhythm, uphill, dig deep, lean forward, the turn is gonna come, the right turn at Hereford, make him sprint as hard as he can, and discourage him by the time he turns." And that's what I did.
Boylston was powerful; no matter how horrific it was, I wanted to change it, to do something where the bombing happened, get a flag or something, but it was just too big of a race. I had to get to that finish line, and I did it.
In 2013, you were a spectator, watching near the finish line. If you hadn't left before the bombings, where would you have been when they went off?
I was on the opposite side. The bombs went off on the left. I was on the right.
You must have gone through that in your mind, that alternate scenario, what if I had been there and seen it?
To see it would have been catastrophic. Obviously it is already, but emotionally, mentally, it would have reminded me of my childhood. I heard the land mine explosions and was later picking up body parts with sticks. So when I heard that bombing, my mind went there. We came to this country to be safe, and here we are in the situation that we ran from.
During your career, you've had to address the notion of not really being American. Did Boston finally put that to rest?
I hope so. You can look at that glass half full or half empty. Winning the Boston Marathon solidified my career. And I felt like that was the conclusion -- Meb is as American as it can get. People don't ask anymore. Now they're saying thank you.
It's not even congratulations anymore. It's, "Thank you for what you have done for America." So I hope the cup is full now. I hope people know what I have done and accept me as who I am.
As you were visualizing winning the race and all the different reasons that you had for wanting to win the race, was that in there somewhere -- they'll never be able to say that about me again?
I'm as proud of being an American as I was before. None of that changes who I am, but hopefully it changes other people and gives them perspective.
You can't control it, right?
I can't control it. It's funny. My daughters see the flag and say, "That's Daddy's flag.'' That's what they call it. They've seen it at the Olympic Games, or they've seen me carry it. That's the country that gave us opportunity. That's the United States flag.
All of this recognition you're getting now, what is that like? To finally get this wave of not only commercial opportunities but also appreciation from fans?
Boston has given me a responsibility to be an ambassador and an appreciation for being an ambassador for the sport. People probably have an idea of who I am, what I've done, but this solidifies that I'm a good guy that they'd like to be on their country's team. It's a blessing.
God works in mysterious ways, not when we want, but there's a time and place for it. Winning Boston closed a lot of loose ends. And I feel blessed. There were over 32,000 people running, and I said: "We're gonna run as one. I will hope to lead the way."
Simple question: Why are you still interested in running?
Simple answer: 5:20. The first time I ever ran a mile, I ran a 5:20. It's my God-given talent, and that's everything to me. If that's maxed out, I'm ready to go.
Are you ready to go?
A good friend of mine always says there will be a time I just don't want to work on it anymore. I love training. I mean, I'm not gonna lie. It's not like I don't complain about it. When injury happens, it takes me forever to recover. But other than that, as long as I can put one foot in front of the other, if I'm running outside, I'm excited about it.
But there have to be days you get up, you're bored, you're tired, you don't feel like it. How do you keep yourself interested?
If I had all the money in the world, the perfect way to exit would have been Boston. That's what I was dreaming for as a runner. But when you hear runners who sometimes don't have good days or cancer survivors or people who say, "I was a smoker for 40 years," when they talk to me, I get motivated. I'm still able.
And if you can finish in the top 10 of a major marathon, you're damn good. Because everybody trains. Fourth place is huge. Fifth place is huge. Top 10 is huge. There are other people praying, hoping for that magical day when it comes together like it did for me in Boston. And there are other people who are coming up, but I'm still in the mix. I'll be 40. Not too many age-groupers are gonna be happy when I turn 40. I love half-marathons -- I could probably run that every day. This is the best I've felt in 11 years.
So you're aiming for another Olympics appearance, this time in Rio?
Yes, any time you get an opportunity to represent your country, it's a great honor. I'll be 41 then, and it will be a personal challenge if I can make it.
One more thing, are more people pronouncing your last name correctly?
[Laughs] Yes ma'am. But I'm known as Meb, you know?