Meb Keflezighi, Marathon winner and Olympic medalist, takes us on a tour Africa.
In the moments following Meb Keflezighi’s 26th and final competitive marathon Sunday, a 2:15.29 exercise in stubborn defiance of age from Staten Island to the heart of Central Park, the man with singular gifts offered one more of his own.
At age 42, downright ancient in the spring-loaded-legs world of the marathon, the kid from San Diego High decided to save up something special when it seemed impossible for any of that sort of inspirational jet fuel to remain.
Keflezighi badgered the leaders — 24-year-old winner Geoffrey Kamworor and 27-year-old, third-place Lelisa Desisa — for 10 miles, then 15, then 20 before succumbing to physics and physiology to finish 11th at the New York City Marathon.
The only person to win New York, Boston and an Olympic medal reminded us once more about all-out effort, all-in commitment, all-defining class and all in, well, its most grand and glorious all-ness.
Miracle Meb, take a bow.
“I played it gutsy, to inspire people to compete for titles,” Meb said in his first post-race phone interview. “I have no regrets whatsoever.”
San Diego lucked into greatness personified with Keflezighi — as an athlete and, most impressively, as a person. The combination, seemingly as rare as a Gutenberg Bible or Honus Wagner baseball card. The power in it, humbling.
The man from Mission Hills who has registered nearly five laps around the earth — about 120,000 miles of training and competitive racing — paused at Mile 23 to throw up. He stopped again and again, five or six times in all, as his body fought to find one more finish line.
As the crowd lining the park roared his final mile and millions watched on ESPN2, Meb blew kisses despite an internal system on the verge of shutdown. He offered his trademark thumbs-up. He summoned a weak smile.
When he crossed the line, Meb wobbled and collapsed — an exclamation point on a career without limits finally flirting with one.
Was anyone surprised?
This is the young boy who landed in America with a family chased from the dusty wilds of Eritrea by gunfire and crippling uncertainty. This is the wide-eyed dreamer who dodged land-mines in Africa for a chance to embrace limitless opportunity half a world away.
Quit short of 26.2? Hardly.
“The finish line couldn’t come fast enough,” Meb said. “It’s been a long time coming.”
New York was the place, in 2002, where Meb ran his first marathon. So brutal, that day was, that Keflezighi vowed he’d never run another. Fifteen years and 25 of them later, he finished where he started.
Which was tougher?
“All of the above,” he joked.
Hall of Fame UCLA track coach Bob Larsen — the man who began as a coach and become a second father — accompanied Meb on Sunday to the pre-dawn buses that shuttle runners to the marathon’s start line.
Both understood how profound the moment would be. The two spent nearly a quarter century together — first as partners in championships at UCLA, then as altitude-training pioneers who transformed U.S. distance running — drawing strength from each other’s drive and selfless souls.
The darkness masked Larsen’s tears.
“Meb said, ‘You’ve been there every step of the way,’ ” Larsen said. “It was pretty special.”
At Saturday’s technical meeting, where elite athletes were briefed on details ranging from breakfast times to drug-testing protocols, someone stopped the gathering to speak. A standing ovation for Meb followed.
The emotion of the moment consumed him.
“When the people you’re running against do that …,” said Larsen, pausing as he caved to the moving memory himself, “you’ve earned respect very few people get.”
Outpourings of appreciation popped up everywhere, from the race route to the press conference.
Shalane Flanagan became the first American woman in 40 years to win New York, framing her time of 2:26.53 as a testament to training alongside Meb, Larsen and trailblazer Deena Kastor in the Eastern Sierra.
The other influencer, Flanagan’s undeniable X Factor, was the man who finished 11th wearing a No. 11 bib.
“I feel lucky and have blessed to have run in what I consider the Meb era,” Flanagan said. “He’s been the absolute best role model for all of us. The way he lives and conducts himself. I just love being around the man. He’s always smiling. I tell him all the time, he has the best giggle I’ve ever heard.
“He was a part of healing Boston after the (2013 marathon) bombings, and that’s my hometown. His performance meant the world to me and to the people who helped raise me. He’s a special person, for sure.”
Meb anticipated a soon-to-be-less-rare glass of wine on Sunday night. A world far away from the strain of competition, put on hold for decades, awaits.
It’s time to unwind. It’s time for those fruits of labor, finally and fully enjoyed. It’s time to trade all those training hours for uninterrupted afternoons with Yordanos and daughters, Sara, Fiyori and Yohana.
“I see parents riding bikes in Mission Bay Park with their kids,” he said. “I can’t wait to do that with them.”
Pedal away, Meb. Pedal away.