by Tito Morales
Hard Work and Long, Hard Miles Led Meb Keflezighi to Athens and to a Sterling-Silver Day.
© 2004 42K(+) Press, Inc.
Six weeks before the 2004 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, Mebrahtom Keflezighi, one of the prerace favorites, phoned his longtime coach, Bob Larsen, to inform him that he would be withdrawing from the February 7 competition.
Keflezighi, affectionately known as “Meb” throughout the running community, had been enduring the worst of all possible luck in his preparations. First, he was battling a variety of physical ailments, including tendinitis in one knee and then the other. Then, to make matters even worse, he had come down with a horrific case of the flu that had prevented him from running for three full weeks.
Larsen, though, who also happened to be the 2004 U.S. Olympic team men’s distance coach, convinced his runner that it was still too early to make that type of decision.
Debilitated by his influenza and with a rapidly shrinking window of time in which to ready himself, Keflezighi made the commitment to train as minimally as possible. There would be no 100-mile weeks and no runs exceeding 20 miles. For the longest of stretches, in fact, the distance star was reduced to biking more than running.
“It was difficult,” Keflezighi admits, recalling his mind-set while approaching the start line on a blustery winter morning in Birmingham, Alabama. “You’re not sure if you’re going to hit The Wall early. You don’t know what’s going to happen.”
What happened, though, defied probability.
Not only did Keflezighi earn one of the three coveted spots on the U.S. team, but he also somehow managed to run virtually lock step for more than 26 miles with eventual winner Alan Culpepper—losing by a mere five seconds over the final sprint.
Six months later, on August 29, Keflezighi again stunned the marathon world by earning a silver medal at the Olympic Games. In doing so, he became the first American male marathoner to reach the awards podium since 1976.
Upon reflection, though, perhaps Keflezighi’s feats at both the Trials and the Olympics shouldn’t be that much of a surprise because his entire life—and especially his running career—has been defined by his achieving the seemingly improbable.
A Long and Winding Road
Keflezighi (pronounced Ka-FLEZ-gee) was born on May 5, 1975, in Eritrea, a small underdeveloped East African nation with a population of close to 4 million. He was one of 11 children, and his memories of childhood are punctuated by a lack of electricity and endless farm duties.
“We had a lot of chores,” he says. “I was always busy taking care of cattle and collecting wood for fires.”
Eritrea, at the time, was in the midst of a three-decade-long war with neighboring Ethiopia. Keflezighi’s father struck off on his own to neighboring Sudan to try to make a better life for his family and to help save his sons from a perilous life in the military. After a taxing work tenure in Sudan, he moved even farther away from home, to Europe, and labored at multiple jobs in Italy to accumulate enough money for his family to join him. It would be four very long years before the Keflezighi family was reunited.
This is the type of sacrifice, hard work, and commitment that Keflezighi was exposed to during his formative years. These were the lessons he and his siblings absorbed about trying to get ahead and stay ahead.
In 1987, when Meb was 12, the Keflezighis moved to San Diego, California, where Keflezighi’s career would germinate. Initially, his athletic passions lay in soccer, a game he and his brothers had discovered and embraced in Italy. Gradually, though, soccer evolved into running.
“I didn’t speak English,” he explains, “and running became a friend.”
Keflezighi’s two oldest brothers also demonstrated a gift for running while at San Diego High School, but it was their younger sibling’s talent in the sport that began to shine brightest.
Ron Tabb, a 2:09 marathoner, recognized the youngster’s abilities when Keflezighi was still in his early teens.
“He told me after my sophomore year in high school that I was going to be a great marathoner someday,” Keflezighi laughs now, recalling a track-side conversation. “I said, ‘What are you talking about? I’m going to be a miler!’”
By the time Keflezighi graduated in 1994, virtually everyone else who had seen the youth in action had begun to understand the wisdom of Tabb’s prophetic assessment. The high school star had captured a slew of titles and records in both track and cross-country, much in the manner of another of the area’s standouts, Mark Davis. And, as a senior, Keflezighi finished second to Adam Goucher at the extremely competitive Foot Locker National Cross-Country Championships.
Whether his future would lie in the mile, the marathon, or some distance in between remained to be seen.
One thing, though, was quite clear: Meb Keflezighi was an exceptional athlete.
The Makings of a Productive Relationship
Another admirer of the young Keflezighi’s abilities was Larsen, who was head coach of UCLA’s vaunted track and field team.
“I just liked the way he looked,” recalls Larsen of his initial impressions. “He ran with courage.”
But UCLA, a perennial contender for the NCAA Division I title, was not in the habit of offering full scholarships to distance runners.
“You only have 12 [scholarships],” explains Larsen. “We had better chances of winning the NCAAs with sprinters and throwers because they could score as freshmen. With distance runners, it takes a bit longer to develop.”
That line of thinking for the veteran coach, though, changed after a short recruiting trip to San Diego.
“You could just see the determination in the family and in Meb in general,” says Larsen. “You just felt that this was something special.”
Larsen’s hunch turned out to be right. Not only did Keflezighi score as a freshman at the NCAA Championships, but he would go on to become the most successful distance runner in the school’s history. In 1997, as a junior, Keflezighi captured the NCAA Indoor 5,000-meter title and the men’s cross-country championship. He followed that up with a rare 5,000/10,000 double at the outdoor NCAA meet.
A year later, Keflezighi, in addition to receiving his U.S. citizenship, was honored as the first recipient of the Carl Lewis Award for the nation’s top male track and field athlete.
As the size of the running stages grew, so did Keflezighi’s performances.
In 2000, he won the U.S. Olympic Trials in the 10,000 meters, and in Sydney, despite battling the flu, he earned a 12th-place finish with a gutsy 27:53.63 PR.
Keflezighi has been at or near the top of the United States distance-running renaissance ever since. He has been equally tenacious on the track, where he is the current American record holder in the 10,000 meters; on the roads, where he captured, among other things, two USA 15K championships; and off the roads, where he earned a pair of U.S. cross-country titles.
Team Running USA
As Keflezighi was completing his stint in Westwood, so too was Larsen, who coincidentally was retiring from collegiate coaching.
The two discussed how they could continue working together, and they came up with a plan to use the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, not far from Keflezighi’s home in San Diego. As an added bonus, there was also the geographic feasibility of mixing in some altitude training at Mammoth Mountain.
“Most of our programs are collegiate based, and only a couple of those are located in altitude,” Larsen explains, describing one of his frustrations while at UCLA. “I thought, here Europeans and even Africans are using altitude in the United States and our own athletes aren’t because all of the coaches are based at their schools and can’t get up to altitude.”
The problem, though, was finding enough high-quality runners to make the commitment to Chula Vista and Mammoth worthwhile.
Larsen contacted Joe Vigil, who was entrenched in Alamosa, Colorado, training the likes of Deena Kastor, and urged him to come to California to get a sense of what he was envisioning. At first, Vigil was skeptical. After getting a feel for the Mammoth community, though, and seeing firsthand the extensive network of running trails in the mountain environs, he became a convert.
The two coaches joined forces in 2001, and this was the genesis of Team USA California, which has evolved into Team Running USA.
“It’s a very positive environment,” says Keflezighi. “It’s like a college, but you don’t have to go to classes. You just take care of what you have to accomplish with your running.”
The program, needless to say, has already produced some impressive results, including placing three of its athletes on the six-member 2004 U.S. marathon team—Keflezighi, Kastor, and Jen Rhines. Ten-thousand-meter specialist Elva Dryer and 1,500-meter star Carrie Tollefson are two more group members who ran their way onto the Athens squad. Top it all off with Kastor’s bronze medal and Keflezighi’s silver medal, and it’s clear that there is something to be said about the combination of training at altitude and doing so in numbers.
“Meb’s been a motivating factor for me since we started training together,” explains Kastor. “The real highlight was at the Olympic Trials in the 10K in 2000. The men’s race was directly before the women’s. I was on the side of the track lacing up my spikes, and I watched him blaze his last mile. It gave me no option, really, but to go out there and try to do the same thing since he and I had been doing so much of our training together up to that point.”
It’s obvious that after watching Kastor’s inspiring Olympic run through the Greek countryside on television while he was still at training camp on Crete, Keflezighi was similarly moved to produce something special.
“To see her do it the way she did it—it was just dramatic, and I was so proud of her,” says Keflezighi. “It was the perfect race. I was trying to use the same strategy.”
Whatever Larsen and Vigil have been doing in the remote corner of California’s Sierra Nevadas, it’s working. And the United States hasn’t experienced this much excitement with the sport of distance running in quite some time.
For his part, Keflezighi is enchanted by the beautiful ambience Mammoth affords, and he considers himself very fortunate to be able to live and train there.
“I love it, and I get a lot of satisfaction out of it,” Keflezighi says.
A Family Like None Other
When you speak to Keflezighi, it soon becomes apparent that he is uncomfortable talking about his running or his accomplishments. He would prefer to tell you, instead, about the pride he takes in his family and especially the achievements of his siblings. The words flow more freely when he is discussing the sister who is finishing medical school at UCLA or the one who is enrolled in the same university’s distinguished law school.
Query him about the highlights of his still-young life, and Keflezighi will most likely bypass all the national championships and records and instead describe the trip he made to Eritrea in fall 2002, after his debut in the New York Marathon. He hadn’t been back to the country of his birth in 17 years.
“It meant a lot to me,” he says, his voice softening at the memory. “I was reunited with a lot of cousins and relatives. It was pretty emotional.”
Eritreans turned out en masse to welcome back their native son. There was a police escort. Thousands chanted his name. But what seemed to please Keflezighi most about the entire affair was that he brought smiles and a sense of hope to many people.
“Anybody who knows Meb loves him,” says Larsen, whose unique relationship with Keflezighi is now going on a decade. “He’s one of the most likeable guys around.”
Kastor goes to great lengths to detail her teammate’s selflessness and his underplayed leadership qualities.
“Everyone in the family is like that,” she says, “and the credit goes to his parents. They’re amazing people. To have come from such extreme conditions and such a hostile environment, and to somehow be able to raise children as strong, independent and educated as they are, is pretty incredible.”
The Keflezighi family’s implausible journey is clearly a motivating factor in Keflezighi’s success.
“I don’t lose sight of the fact that this can all be gone tomorrow,” Keflezighi says of his running. “I never take things for granted when I get a chance to run.”
Stepping Up Big Time
Keflezighi, surely buoyed by the successful 2001 marathon debut of teammate Kastor, chose to make his marathon debut in the New York City Marathon a year later.
“I thought it would be a good time to test the waters to see what I was capable of,” he says simply.
Keflezighi was 27 years old and on a major roll. The year before, he had broken Mark Nenow’s long-standing American record in the 10,000 meters on the track with a time of 27:13.98. He had also captured a pair of U.S. titles, one in the 12K cross-country winter championships and another in the 15K on the roads.
And in 2002, in the months leading up to November, he added five more U.S. titles to his resume, on every type of terrain and in distances ranging from 5K to 15K.
Larsen was all for Keflezighi’s running his first marathon.
“We felt it was a plus,” Larsen says.
The coach had had success with some of his top athletes in the past throwing in a marathon as part of their training, including former college great Steve Ortiz, who ran 2:13 at UCLA.
“We were finding these guys running pretty fast, and it was just part of their track training,” Larsen explains. “We didn’t have any problems with losing anything in track. In fact, we thought it aided what we were trying to do on the track.”
Truth be told, Larsen is hoping that the pendulum is finally swinging back from the thinking that marathons can potentially destroy an athlete’s track persona.
“Yes, the marathon is a tough race,” he says. “But maybe we’ve almost gotten to the point where guys are building it up too much in their minds. All of a sudden it’s, ‘Now you’ve got to become a marathoner.’ ‘It’s so horrendous.’ ‘It takes so much out of you.’ ‘It’s going to change what you do.’ My experience has been just the opposite.”
Keflezighi and Larsen chose New York because they wanted to see how he could do in a race that attracts some of the most talented marathoners in the world.
“I thought I could be competitive at that level,” Keflezighi says.
The caveat, though, would be that since Keflezighi still very much considered himself a 5K and 10K specialist who was in no way making a permanent jump up in racing distance, he and Larsen refused to reinvent Keflezighi’s regular training regimen.
“I was just having fun,” he says. “My thing was that if it comes, it comes, and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. I wasn’t going to stress out about it.”
Lessons Learned and Learned Well
Keflezighi was plugging himself into the marathon distance big time, knowing that such a grand undertaking could either spectacularly succeed or fabulously fail.
He wasn’t traveling to the Big Apple simply to earn top American honors. There would be no personal rabbit commissioned to help initiate him to the distance. Keflezighi was going to New York to try to win, pure and simple. He would go out with the lead pack and latch on to it for as long as his uninitiated body could tolerate.
The group rolled through the first 10K in 30:25 and passed the half in 1:03.50. Keflezighi was well on his way to running the fastest debut ever by an American. That mattered little to him. He was instead focusing on trying to control the race, periodically throwing in surges that included 4:36 and 4:37 miles.
“I was competing,” he says. “I was just trying to be competitive.”
Eighteen miles into the race, Keflezighi was in the lead. He was exhibiting precisely the type of courage that American distance fans had craved since the days of Bill Rodgers, Frank Shorter, and Alberto Salazar. He was acting, instead of reacting. He was making an impact—emphatically stating with his legs that he belonged in the front, whether anyone expected him to be there or not.
The lead pack began to disintegrate under the relentless pressure.
Keflezighi and just a handful of others, who included eventual winner Rodgers Rop from Kenya, crossed mile 20 in 1:37:27. They were averaging 4:52 miles and on pace to post a sub-2:08. Less than one month earlier, Culpepper had recorded a 2:09:41 in Chicago, a mark that tied the great Salazar for the fastest American debut.
During the last 10K, however, Keflezighi’s marathon inexperience and the chilly weather finally began to catch up with him.
“Unfortunately, I threw my beanie away, and I got cold,” he explains. “The combination of the fatigue and getting cold made me start having to work really hard.”
He watched in frustration as not only Rop and the others pulled away from him, but more runners began to catch him from behind. Keflezighi crossed the line in ninth place with a more-than-respectable time of 2:12:35.
“They put three to four minutes on me in the last five miles, but I made it through and learned a lot,” he summarizes. “It was a great experience for me. It wasn’t my best race, but I gave it my best shot.”
Larsen chuckles as he recalls how afterward, when he finally found Keflezighi in the athlete’s tent, the first thing out of his runner’s mouth was, ‘Well, that was my first and last marathon.’”
Eleven months later, though, Keflezighi went to Chicago in pursuit of the Olympic marathon “A” standard, and he banged out a 2:10:03. This time, unlike in New York, he let the leaders go after 11 miles, a decision, he admits, that was difficult to digest.
“But you have to do what works for you,” he says.
Keflezighi was forced to run much of the last half of the race alone, but sticking to his game plan ultimately paid dividends as he passed several runners in the homestretch to earn a seventh-place overall finish.
A few weeks after Chicago, the Olympics “A” standard was raised from 2:12 to 2:15, which essentially meant that Keflezighi didn’t need to run a hard marathon before the Trials. Adding injury to insult, when he tried to resume training in the weeks after Chicago, he found himself having to combat a string of lingering physical ailments that would plague him all the way up to Birmingham.
Straddling Two Cultures
For generations now, it has been bandied about that one of the biggest reasons why American distance runners have failed to make an impact at the sport’s highest levels is that the United States, as a country, has grown soft.
There are too many diversions here, it has been theorized. Athletes from less-privileged nations simply want it more. They need it more. Consequently, they’re much more willing to put in the work to succeed.
Keflezighi’s standing in this argument is an odd one. When he and his family settled in the San Diego area and began to experience a life filled with what must have surely seemed like limitless diversity, there was nothing mandating that Keflezighi be successful in athletics. There was no farm life from which to escape, no pangs of hunger to drive him onward whenever the pain from running grew unbearable.
Keflezighi’s parents, in fact, would be the first to admit that it was America’s richer educational system that had brought them here from Europe in the first place, not the potential for their offspring to excel in sport.
Somehow, though, Keflezighi found running; perhaps more accurately, running found him.
Keflezighi represents a human bridge. His success in the sport straddles two cultures. While his work ethic, drive, and virtually his entire mind-set seem very much of another continent—say from Ethiopia or Kenya—his career was unmistakably born and came to flourish on American soil.
“From what I’ve seen, he works harder than anybody I know,” says Kastor. “And that’s not just true of his training, it’s true with everything else as well. He’ll just do whatever it takes to succeed.”
“Being careful with what he eats, the plyometrics, the stretching, all the gym work,” says Larsen. “He’ll do all the extra things.”
It can be argued, in fact, that if ever there were a case for an individual to have been driven to distraction, it would have been Keflezighi. By the time he was a teenager, he had lived on three very different continents. Considering everything novel that surely bombarded him when he first set foot in Southern California, his level of commitment and discipline is all the more remarkable.
“I’ve overcome a lot of obstacles,” admits Keflezighi, who hopes to one day parlay his communications and business education into doing motivational speaking at high schools and corporations. “I’d like to help people and show them that things are never as bad as they look at a particular moment.”
For now, though, he has plenty of high-quality running left in his legs.
Kastor, in particular, believes that Keflezighi has barely scratched the surface of his running potential.
“I think he’s going to be incredible in the next few years,” she predicted even before her teammate earned silver in Athens. “Each training period he goes through, he gets faster and stronger and looks more effortless.”
She, like everyone else, is eager to see his future attempts at the 26.2-mile distance.
“As a marathoner, the more experience you get and the more mileage that you can consistently get in, the better off you’re going to be,” Kastor says. “With the training he’s doing right now, he just looks incredible. His work ethic and his consistency are going to continue to get him good results.”
Lead Up to a Historic Run
While still at training camp on Crete after the Olympic Games had started, Keflezighi went to work scribbling postcards.
“There were 38 or so,” he estimates. “I just wanted to say thank you for helping me to get this far, no matter what the outcome.”
His lengthy mailing list included friends, family members, physiologists, physical therapists, and coaches.
“It’s not just Meb,” Keflezighi insists. “There are a list of people who are Team Meb. A lot of people work hard for me.”
Things were coming together for Keflezighi. Training had been going well, and aside from a minor knee problem a few days before he was to run, he had remained relatively injury free. His approach to this, the biggest race of his life, was simple: treat it as just another race.
“Before we left Crete, I felt very certain that he had a real shot at medaling or, in the very least, he’d be very competitive up front,” says Larsen.
Probably the vast majority of the 101 marathoners and their coaches who were in the final stages of preparations, though, felt the same. The Olympic Games are all about defining moments, and every athlete who makes it to sport’s most magnificent stage dreams of pulling off a breakthrough in front of the eyes of the world.
In the months leading up to the marathon, much had been made about the physical challenges the athletes would be facing along the historic route. First there was the heat, then the hills, then the smog, and then, to compound matters, the noxious fumes from the freshly paved asphalt.
When Keflezighi finally saw the course firsthand, however, he confidently predicted that he could run 2:12.
The truth of the matter was that Larsen and Vigil had designed such a demanding schedule for Keflezighi and Kastor back home in Mammoth—one that included a pair of very difficult 26-mile runs after July’s U.S. Track & Field Trials—that anything the two runners faced in Athens would likely pale in comparison.
“I told coach Larsen when I saw the course, ‘Those are not hills,’” Keflezighi laughs. “‘From what you guys have prepared us for, those are not hills.’”
Retracing the Footsteps of a Legend
Keflezighi was in dead last for the first mile or so in what was to become the race of his life.
Everyone in the tightly bunched group was playing things just as conservatively, though, and for good reason, considering how the women’s field had gradually withered under the relentless heat and hills just one week before.
But by the time Larsen saw Keflezighi at the 15K mark, he knew that his runner was on.
“I didn’t want him in the front group from the beginning, and I didn’t want him back where Deena was,” Larsen explains. “I wanted him close, and that’s where he was. I said, ‘Perfect,’ and he gave me a thumbs up. From then on, I was completely relaxed.”
“You work hard, you work hard, and you work hard,” says Keflezighi, “and you put in miles and miles, but you’re never sure whether you’ll ever have your day.”
This was rapidly turning out to be one of his days.
Keflezighi grew more and more comfortable with each passing mile. Heat or no heat, hills or no hills, competitive field or no competitive field, he knew that things were going his way. He could feel it in his legs—and in his heart.
“Halfway through the race, I knew I was probably going to get top 10,” Keflezighi says. “But at the same time, I was thinking, Wait, those other guys have run a lot faster than I. When are they going to make a move?”
As it turned out, the ones making most of the moves when the running turned to racing were eventual gold medalist Stefano Baldini and Keflezighi.
“I knew I was going to have a fabulous day when I was in fourth place,” says Keflezighi. “Worst-case scenario was I would finish fourth, but with five miles to go I was ecstatic anyway. I told myself, Well, if I can just beat one more guy I’ve got a medal.”
As it turns out, Keflezighi was destined to outrace all but one.
Keflezighi never did hit The Wall. He had opened with a 16:05 first 5K, but he sealed the deal with a 14:20 last 5K.
He credits Baldini with helping to make the race happen and for making his move at the right time. The difficulties Keflezighi dealt with in the latter miles of New York were still in the back of his mind, so he reluctantly allowed Baldini to forge ahead.
“That was the hardest part—letting him go. The question was to go for the gold and take a risk—maybe get caught again and get the bronze or not even finish in the medals. With about a mile to go, I tried to go for it, but he was too far ahead.”
A Run for the Ages
A silver medal at the Olympic Games.
Yes, Keflezighi has been painstakingly nurturing a running base for a great many years in the hope that, given the right set of circumstances, he might—just might—be able to produce such a glorious bloom. But there is no shortage of talented runners who have similarly put in the work only to have fallen short.
For Keflezighi’s part, the significance of what he accomplished didn’t begin to sink in until after the closing ceremonies. The full impact may not hit home for many years to come.
“My parents are getting phone calls from all over the world,” he says. “Everyone’s expressing joy for what I did. It’s bigger than I thought it was.”
It’s frustrating that to a great many viewers the lasting images from the most important footrace at the Athens Olympiad won’t be Baldini and Keflezighi’s stirring duel along history’s most famous marathon route but rather a spectator’s bizarre disruption of the competition.
The sport of marathoning deserves better.
American fans, in particular, should revel in the fact that they were treated to a dynamic display of running by one of their own, the likes of which hasn’t been seen at the Olympics in generations.
That nearly all of the competitors were deliberate in their pacing during the early stages of the race was no surprise.
That Keflezighi was such a major force behind accelerating the chase pack after Vanderlei de Lima had begun to move away was not too much of a surprise either, especially given the American’s brash assertiveness in New York.
To watch Keflezighi shrug off decades of U.S. frustration in Olympic Games men’s marathoning with the ease of one slipping out of a racing singlet, however—now that was something to behold.
There are no two ways about it: this field of 101 athletes was stacked. Most of the prerace attention, of course, centered on world record holder Paul Tergat, but no less than three dozen sub-2:10 marathoners toed the line, including the likes of South Korea’s Lee Bong-Ju, a champion at Boston, and Moroccan Jaouad Gharib, who captured the 2003 World Championships in Paris.
It was a marathon-seasoned crowd, and many of the participants had dedicated their entire running focus into mastering the 42-kilometer distance.
It was Keflezighi, though—a runner still very much in the prime of his track career—who was dictating a huge chunk of the action as the group progressed into the hills and the race became an actual race. He and eventual winner Stefano Baldini produced monster negative splits, with Keflezighi covering the first half of the race in 1:07:40 and rolling through the second in 1:03:49.
Keflezighi’s memorable run was a synthesis of everything he had learned in his three previous marathon efforts.
In New York, he had proven to himself that he could compete with the leaders. In Chicago, he discovered that he did indeed possess the patience to go the distance. In Birmingham, he realized that he was stronger both physically and mentally than he could have imagined.
And on the evening of August 29, over the course of a magical 2 hours, 11 minutes, and 29 seconds, Keflezighi put it all together in the form of a striking blossom whose vibrancy will endure for many, many years to come.
It’s a Beautiful Day
The drought is over.
From Sandoval and Durden to Pfitzinger and Salazar; from Conover and Eyestone to Kempainen, Coogan, DeHaven, and De La Cerda.
Ever since the glory days of the 1970s, America’s male Olympic marathoners have been the objects of ridicule and derision—particularly in their own country. It was drilled into their consciousness that no matter how many triple-digit training weeks they strung together and no matter what physical and emotional sacrifices they made, they would never be able to compete with the Kenyans, Japanese, or Ethiopians.
Their efforts, no matter how prodigious, were treated with scorn by the media, by the casual observer, and, sad to say, even by many devotees of the sport.
Four years after the state of U.S. Olympic marathoning reached its nadir, though—when both the men’s and women’s marathon squads competing in Sydney consisted of exactly one runner each—all that has changed.
Culpepper’s impressive 12th-place performance, which was overshadowed by Keflezighi’s feat, was reason enough to celebrate. But a bronze and a silver medal to boot?
“It gives people hope,” says Larsen, “and that’s what we attempted to do from 2000. All of a sudden, we got a third of the medals. We’re the only country that got two. All of a sudden, we’re a marathoning country again.”
Legend holds that when Pheidippides finally reached Athens to announce the overmatched Greek army’s improbable military victory, he announced, “Rejoice, we have conquered!”
But legends are often based more on fiction than on fact.
Reality, on the other hand, holds that when Keflezighi faced reporters on the night of his equally improbable victory, he announced, “USA running is back.”
For sure, what the world witnessed in Athens by no means guarantees that American runners will reach the awards podium at every major marathon. It is, though, something on which to continue building—something very, very satisfying on which to continue building.
“It’s been my vision to be a part of the resurgence of U.S. distance running,” says Keflezighi. “People start to believe. If Meb can do it, why can’t I do it?”
Rejoice, it’s a beautiful day.