Meb Keflezighi’s story is as unfathomable as it is inspirational.
He grew up in the small east African country of Eritrea, living in the midst of a bloody 30-year civil war through which Eritrea ultimately gained its independence from Ethiopia.
For the first decade of his life, Keflezighi lived without electricity or running water in the remote village of Adi Beyani. He never saw a car or a television set until he was 10. His father, a member of the Eritrean Liberation Front, was a fugitive who was hunted by Ethiopian soldiers. His older brothers often had to hide in the jungle to avoid being forcibly enlisted into the Ethiopian army.
Keflezighi couldn’t have imagined then that he would someday become one of the world’s most admired athletes.
The Keflezighi family, including Meb and nine siblings, fled to Milan, Italy, and eventually settled in San Diego. He took up competitive distance running in high school, became a star at UCLA and became an American hero when he won the silver medal in the 2004 Olympic marathon and won the 2009 New York City Marathon.
He became a superhero in 2014 when he became the first American citizen in 31 years to win the Boston Marathon. It was the year after a bomb exploded at the race, taking the lives of three people. He ran that race with the names of the victims written on his race bib.
Along the way, Keflezighi also has developed an affectionate relationship with the Quad-City Times Bix 7. He won the Bix 7 in 2002 and 2009, when it served as the U.S. championship race for seven miles, and he has placed in the top 10 on six other occasions.
At the age of 43, he has retired from competitive running but still participates in several races a year, often doing so in support of some sort of charitable cause. He is scheduled to run the 44th annual Bix 7 on July 28.
Last week, the only athlete ever to win the New York Marathon, the Boston Marathon and an Olympic medal did an interview with the Times’ Don Doxsie.
QCT: You are coming back to run the Bix 7 again this year, aren’t you?
Meb: Yes, I am, and I’m very excited about it.
QCT: I understand you went back and visited Eritrea around the time of the Bix 7 last year. Do you do that often?
Meb: That was the first time the children went. I’ve been back a few times. … I went back for the 25th anniversary of their independence (in 2016), but before that it was 2007.
QCT: Has it changed a lot since you were a kid there in the 1970s and 1980s?
Meb: Oh, yeah. There is peace. It’s a small nation that is changing, but nothing happens overnight. It’s like a race or like a marathon; it takes time for it to change and develop. But they’re going in the right direction.
QCT: What kind of reception do you get when you go there?
Meb: When I first went back there in 2006, I was invited by the government. I get a pretty good reception every time I go there. They have live TV, newspapers, and I do a couple of days of interviews. It’s not just one day.
One time when we went there, they were in the middle of a bicycle championship in the middle of their city capital, Asmara. They had me jog. They asked "Do you want to ride in a car or do you want to jog a few kilometers of the course?" I said "I’ll jog it" and the reception was so warm, it brought tears to my eyes. When you run, you’re not just running for yourself; it’s for the people who helped you and the people who cheered you over the years.
QCT: How many times have you been to the Bix 7 now?
Meb: I think we added it up one time and I had been there eight times or seven times, and there was only a 30-second difference total in my time.
QCT: What is it about this race that you like? Is it the course? Is it the people?
Meb: The course is whatever you’re going to run. You’re going to run 7 miles. But the people, the community attract me personally. Ed (Froehlich) does a great job, and I’ve grown a special bond with the Breidingers — Dan, Molly and Mary. Every time I think of July, I think of Bix. Last year I gave them a verbal commitment to come, to be honest, and at the last minute we decided to go (to Eritera) and I felt really bad. I gave a verbal commitment that I was going to come, and I had to change my schedule.
My children are getting older, and my wife and I wanted to show them their roots and hopefully keep them humble, let them know what they have here is pretty special. Hopefully, they will work harder and strive to be better and show people kindness and things like that. That was a tough move that I had to make. I told Dan I know I said I would come but I won’t be able to, and I think he understood. I told him I would come back next year.
QCT: How many races do you do now?
Meb: Not that many. I did the Bellin (10k) Run two weeks ago. I didn’t run competitively. I just did sort of a casual run, and I surprised myself. I did 31 (minutes) and change. After I did 26 marathons, I thought I would just do some shorter races like the Bix or a 10k. … I just came back from the Boston BAA 10k. I ran 38 minutes for the 10k, and it was a lot of fun. It was more of a celebratory run and a victory lap. …
Sometimes people ask "Are you going to win" and I say "Definitely not." The training I haven’t done. When I did the New York City Marathon or won the Olympic medal or the Boston victory, I put my heart and soul into them to be at a peak period for that stage. But there is no race that I am targeting that I’m going to get ready for now.
But I still love to run. ... Whether I’m at Indy or the Vermont Marathon relay or the Cherry Blossom in D.C., there are people who mention the Bix 7 to me. They say "Oh, I’ll meet you at Bix 7." You hear that. The Bix 7 is a big national race, nationally known, so I look forward to coming back, but I’m definitely not planning on competing hard there.
QCT: You have three daughters (Sara, Fiyori and Yohana) who have gotten into running. Do they go to some of these races with you?
Meb: Yeah, they’ve done some. I was going to take one of them this weekend with me to Boston for the 10k, but I had to go to Minneapolis before Boston. I had to be there for my sponsor, CEP, which are compression socks, and I had to make a few appearances.
QCT: You once said that last fall’s New York City Marathon would be your last marathon, but then you ended up running at Boston in April, didn’t you?
Meb: Yes. Competitively, I’m done with marathons. But I got an email from Bill Richard, whose son Martin Richard was killed in the bombing (at the 2013 Boston Marathon). An 8-year-old kid. I met them a couple of days before I won (at Boston in 2014). I told him "I have an 8-year-old, and I can’t even imagine what you are going through so I’ll just pray and give you a hug." Ever since, we kind of bonded into a friendship. We text each other periodically, and he sent me an email. … I told him before when I met him, "If there’s anything I can do, please reach out." So he reached out and said could you run for the Martin Richard Foundation?
I am going to run the New York City Marathon in three hours, which is what I did in Boston, for Team for Kids. I’m going to do New York for fun, more so than for serious, probably in three hours or 3:10, around that level. Then I’ll probably run one more for my foundation to fund-raise, a marathon or a half-marathon, something like that. … But after that I am done.
I want to be able to enjoy it. Even though it’s easy for me, I still have to put in the mileage to make sure I don’t cramp up. I only did about 17 miles as a long run for the Boston Marathon. … It doesn’t get easier.
QCT: Obviously you still have to put in some training time just to even run for fun in things like the Bix 7?
Meb: Yeah. Over the years, I’ve run 125,000 miles, but at the same time I wanted to run at least 20 miles before I did my (2018) Boston Marathon. We were on spring break with the kids in Hawaii, and I can’t say "Can I go for a 20-mile run?" It’s fine. I still love running. I still enjoy it. But instead of six days a week or seven days week, sometimes it’s four days a week I’ll go for a run. I run anywhere from 7 or 8 miles to 10-12 miles.
I better look good for the community of Bix and Davenport, the Quad-Cities. I better make sure I’m running good.