On Sunday, November 5, Mebrahtom “Meb” Keflezighi, 42, will retire from professional running after finishing the New York City Marathon for the 11th time. With it, he caps a 19-year career, which includes an Olympic silver medal in the distance and drought-breaking wins at the New York City and Boston marathons. Other Americans have run faster, have had more talent, but none have achieved more, making Keflezighi arguably the United States’ greatest distance runner. He was an athlete we didn’t deserve.
Keflezighi, born in Eritrea, emigrated to the U.S. at 12 with his family as they fled civil war. He soon established himself as a standout prep runner and then a four-time NCAA champion at UCLA. He’d earn his U.S. citizenship in 1998 and compete for his new country beginning in early 2000 at the World Cross Country Championships and later that summer at the Sydney Olympics on the track.
But while he set the national record for 10,000 meters as a young pro (his mark has since been lowered by almost 30 seconds), Keflezighi wasn’t a great runner because he was fast. Keflezighi was great because he was smart—a master tactician who, rather than grinding his opponents down with metronomic speed, ran his races like a boxer fights: intuiting when to feint, when to jab, and when to swing the haymaker for the knockout.
Watch his silver-medal performance from the Athens Olympics in 2004 (above). While eventual bronze winner, Vanderlei de Lima of Brazil, surged at the halfway mark, Keflezighi patiently waited him out, letting the brutal temperature and solo miles wear him down before passing him without a backwards glance. It was Keflezighi’s fourth time at the distance.
In 2009, after injury had taken him from the last two years of serious competition, Keflezighi toed the starting line of the New York City Marathon already written off. Having parted ways with longtime sponsor Nike, he wore a USA singlet from a former national team like someone trying to rub a spark of luck from past glory days. Instead of a swan song, he fought like Rocky Balboa, duking it out with Kenya’s Robert Cheruiyot, at that time considered the best marathoner in the world, before administering the coup de grace in Central Park.
And then in Boston 2014, Keflezighi made such an early, reckless move that the entire elite field let him go seemingly into his own destruction. He would run alone into the teeth of a legendary brutal course while being pursued by a field that outclassed him by every tangible metric, but he somehow gauged that the field was complacent and overconfident. By the time they realized what was happening, Keflezighi was too far ahead, and he completed another coup d’etat on Boylston Street. One year after tragedy struck the finish line, Keflezighi became the first American to win the race since 1982.
If there was a list of all-time list of modern U.S. marathoners, defined by those that came after the bleak 1990s, it would have to start with Khalid Khannouchi, a Moroccan-born distance runner that spent most of career running for his native country before switching allegiances in 2000 and setting the still-standing American record in 2002. For a country that has a long history of appropriating foreign cultures and claiming their accomplishments as its own, Khannouchi is the runner we deserved.
It would have to include Ryan Hall, of Big Bear, California, who would run faster than any American man ever at the Boston Marathon in 2011, running 2:04:58 (the course design prevents him from claiming the actual national record), before bizarre career decisions like naming God as his coach resulted in his peak years squandered and his career prematurely ended by frequent injury and overtraining. In a country where religion determines politics and politics are religion, Hall is the runner we deserved.
And it would include Galen Rupp, who just this fall won the Chicago Marathon, a race not previously conquered by an American in 15 years—a performance shrouded in a cloud of doping allegations that he and his coach, Alberto Salazar, are under. (Salazar, incidentally, was the last American man to win New York prior to Keflezighi.) In a country led by someone Making America Great Again regardless of the ethics of it, Rupp is the runner we deserve.
But Keflezighi, who concludes his career this Sunday in New York, did it all, and he did it well. “I’ve accomplished all I wanted to accomplish as an athlete,” he told Men’s Journal in 2016, “and it’s rare to hear that as an athlete.”
Keflezighi is the rare runner the U.S. didn’t deserve, and for fans of American distance running, his career will be remembered and celebrated. Here’s to Sunday’s celebration.