(When Runner’s World cut me loose as a columnist in 2004, I wasn’t ready to stop magazine work. This year I post the continuing columns from Marathon & Beyond. Much of that material now appears in the book Miles to Go.)
2004. That publicity-crazed idiot who invaded the men’s Olympic Marathon hurt all three medalists, not just the one he tried to tackle. The saddest part of this bizarre incident is that we’ll never know what their order of finish might have been.
The guessing game involves the gold medalist and the one who might have been. If Vanderlei de Lima’s rhythm and concentration had gone uninterrupted, could Stefano Baldini have caught him?
The man in the middle wouldn’t have won but would have medaled regardless. He doesn’t figure in most of the media frenzy about this race, which spilled over from sports reports to the front pages and the news shows.
He’s Mebrahtom Keflezighi, a name as hard to say as it is to spell. For convenience the reporters call him “Meb.”
I don’t know him and have never heard him speak on television, but he strikes me as a quiet man. From Marathon to Athens he ran quietly with the leaders or first group of chasers, never leading himself.
He performed no dramatic acts at the finish and shed no visible tears. He subtly crossed himself, then patted Baldini on the back and walked away.
Meb gave no post-race interview on NBC. Commentator Marty Liquori explained that the runner was “in drug testing” (which is routine for medalists), then spoke to the other two American men.
Meb’s running spoke as loudly, though, as Deena Kastor’s did a week earlier as the bronze medalist. He stayed with the leaders while she came from behind, but both ran about four-minute negative splits in the second half.
Both finished within a minute of the winner. Both bettered their times from the much cooler Trials.
Yet of the two Americans, Meb ran a distant second in attention received. You could say this was because Deena made her breakthrough first, and then came the de Lima affair and Meb’s own quiet finish.
I hope the relatively light praise for Meb wasn’t because Americans think of him as not quite a “real” American. True, he immigrated to this country (from Eritrea in East Africa), but this happened at age 10.
As much as any native-born Olympian, Meb is a product of the U.S. system. He went to high school in San Diego, college at UCLA and has stayed with his coach from the latter, Bob Larsen.
Like Deena Kastor, Meb trained in the Running USA program, formed after the nation’s Olympic marathoning hit bottom in 2000. Only one man and one woman qualified for the Sydney Games, and they finished far out of the medals.
When Meb did finally break his silence on marathon day, he all but shouted his reaction to the silver medal: “Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful!”
Then he added, “USA distance running is back. There should be no question about that.”
No other country had both a woman and a man medal in Athens. The U.S. never before had scored such a double at an Olympics or World Championships.
Later. Meb’s record for coming through at the big races grew from there: New York City winner in 2009, fourth at the 2012 Olympics and then his Boston title in 2014. After Boston I wrote that it couldn’t have happened to a better guy, in a better way (leading nearly every step), at a better time (in that year of healing, by an immigrant American-by-choice).
Let me tell a story that has nothing to do with him being the first U.S. men’s winner at Boston in 31 years, or him approaching his masters years. This is more local and personal.
Two years earlier Meb came to the Eugene Marathon as featured speaker. That Sunday he arranged his training run so he could cheer on the marathoners.
That night he called me to ask, “How did your runners do today?” Not many pros would do that. And after he did, none would stand taller in my eyes.
(Photo: Meb poses with me on a return trip to Eugene, for the 2012 Track Trials.)
[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. The titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Miles to Go, Pacesetters, Running With Class, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, Starting Lines, and This Runner’s World, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]