From eating dirt to a phone call from Barack Obama, runner Meb Keflezighi continues to inspire
For those runners struggling to finish the 10K at the Chubb Bermuda Triangle Challenge, they can perhaps look at the man running next to them for inspiration.
Olympic marathon silver medal-winner Meb Keflezighi will be taking part alongside hundreds of Triangle Challenge runners at Flora Duffy Stadium tomorrow morning and his journey has been nothing short of incredible.
Keflizighi, 47, is one of ten siblings and spent his early years in poverty in Eritrea, in north-east Africa, before heading to Italy and the United States, where his talent for running was discovered.
“I started running in seventh grade when all I wanted was an A in the class and a T-shirt,” Keflezighi said.
“As an immigrant coming from Eritrea, living in Italy for a year and a half before going to the USA in 1987, my dad woke us up at 4.30am to learn English. He had only seventh-grade education, my mum never had any formal education, so they said education was the key to life and I had to work hard.
“I ran a 5min 20sec mile at school and my God-given talent was discovered. My PE teacher said I was going to run in the Olympics and I was fortunate enough to go to four and win a medal for our country. It was a huge honour.”
Keflizighi won his medal in Athens in 2004 and later went on to win the Boston and New York marathons, with the thrill of victory still fresh in his mind.
“In the marathon you get the time to realise things,” Keflizighi said. “In the 100 metres and 200, it is over so quick and you are fighting for the line but here you can visualise how proud you are, people cheer for you.”
Keflizighi’s Boston Marathon win came in 2014, just a year after a terrorist attack claimed the lives of three people and injured hundreds of others, with the runner’s home-grown victory greeted with huge emotion and a phone call from the President.
“I got a call from President Barack Obama after I won the Boston Marathon. He was on Air Force One, talked to me for about five minutes and at the end he said he would be in touch,” Keflizighi said.
“I thought ‘that sounds like just something a politician would say’ but he lived up to his word and he invited me and a guest to the White House for dinner, so I’ve gone from a kid who didn’t have enough food, didn’t have any shoes and who sometimes had to scratch the ground to find minerals to eat to getting invited to the White House for dinner. I’ve been very fortunate.”
It can be difficult for athletes to transition to regular life after their competition days are over but Keflizighi has made it look easy, setting up the MEB foundation to help disadvantaged children through sport.
“My foundation, Maintaining Excellent Balance for health, is very important to me as that’s how my running was discovered,” he said.
“I was one of those children who couldn’t afford them and in ninth grade my teachers bought me a pair of shoes. When I was growing up in Eritrea, I had nothing.
“Sport has done a lot for me and we are trying to help the younger generation. We give out shoes and help to arrange scholarships and help them to be productive members of society.
“We have done New Mexico, Tampa, San Diego, Eritrea, but we would love to expand. Fundraising has helped through the New York City Marathon, Boston Marathon and private donations.”
Keflizighi, who is also a bestselling author, and he has written three books about his life and the impact running has had on it, which is something his younger self would not have foreseen.
“My life has been transformed from a shy kid to speaking engagements now,” Keflizighi said.
“I was very shy and I didn’t communicate very well. I have some amazing co-writers but I never thought I would be a bestselling author.
“I was 10 years old before I even saw a television but now I have been in commercials, I’ve done live TV and people have watched me run marathons. I have to pinch myself.”
If you are running with Keflizighi this weekend or see him around town, do not feel shy about approaching him.
The warm, affable and immensely likeable character is keen to meet as many people as possible.
“It’s an honour when people stop to speak to me,” he said.
“I always say yes to photos as I love doing what I do. I love people and I’m always grateful.
“Runners tend to be very trustworthy, very loyal and they also open up to you.
“I once had someone come up to me to tell me that this was their last marathon before I start chemotherapy. My job is to comfort them and give them a hug.”
• Those wishing to donate to Meb Keflizighi’s foundation should visit mebfoundation.org for more information