Boston Marathon Winner Discusses Journey from Refugee to Running Icon

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Widely regarded as the greatest American marathoner, Meb Keflezighi is the only athlete in history to win both the New York City and Boston Marathons and win an Olympic Medal. While already well known to fans of the sport, Keflezighi became a national hero after his 2014 Boston Marathon win, one year after the bombings of the 2013 marathon.

As runners and spectators prepare for the Boston Marathon this Monday, 2014 Boston Marathon Champion and Olympic Silver Medalist Keflezighi spoke to a packed crowd in Conte Forum Wednesday evening. The event, co-sponsored by the Winston Center for Leadership and Ethics and WeRunBC, featured a talk from Keflezighi discussing his journey from refugee to Olympian and running icon.

Keflezighi followed up this inspiring performance, in which he became the first American to win Boston since 1983, by qualifying for his fourth Olympic Games this summer in Rio de Janeiro by virtue of his second place finish at the Olympic Marathon trials this past February in Los Angeles.

After playing a short highlight video of Keflezighi’s Boston victory, WeRunBC co-founder Carson Truesdell, CSOM ’17, began the discussion by introducing Keflezighi and asking about his historic and meaningful 2014 Boston victory.


“I was proud to lead the 36,000 runners, we wanted something positive on Boylston street after the disastrous moments in 2013. I felt proud to be an American, to get the victory.”


 

“I have to be here [in Boston] next year to support the community, but I hope I am healthy enough to win for the people,” Keflezighi recalled saying to a reporter in the days after the 2013 bombing.

Keflezighi recalled coming into the race as a major underdog, entering with the 19th fastest personal best in the field. However, early on in the race he decided to take an early lead and pushed the pace by himself, he said, because he saw that some of the better runners in the field decided to slow down the pace. By surprising the field with that early surge, and dropping a 4:30 16th mile, Keflezighi built up a sufficient lead to hold on and beat athletes with personal bests five minutes faster than his own.

“I was proud to lead the 36,000 runners, we wanted something positive on Boylston street after the disastrous moments in 2013. I felt proud to be an American, to get the victory,” Keflezighi said.

The discussion then shifted to Keflezighi’s incredible success story from being a refugee to achieving immense athletic success. Born into a family of nine in Eritrea, in East Africa, Keflezighi and his family faced hardships and poverty growing up due to a prolonged war between Eritrea and neighboring Ethiopia. He described the journey his father made to escape certain death from an Ethiopian soldier, a seven-day, 225-mile walk to Sudan, as a moment that helped cement his faith as a Christian.

Eventually, Keflezighi and his family moved to San Diego when he was 12. He remembered his parents emphasizing to his siblings and him how blessed they were to have made it to America.

“They said ‘You have this unique opportunity that we didn’t have, your uncles didn’t have, your cousins didn’t have, so don’t waste it,’” Keflezighi said. “We took it to heart. My dad would wake us up at 4:30 a.m. before 7:30 class so we could learn English.”

Keflezighi recalled this drive for hard work translating to athletics for the first time in his seventh grade physical education class when he ran his first-ever timed mile in 5 minutes and 20 seconds. Told by his teacher that he would be in the Olympics someday, he stated that this sparked his desire to compete at the highest level. After a successful four-year career in cross country and track at UCLA, Keflezighi recalled having to choose between representing his birth country of Eritrea or his adopted home of the United States in the 2000 Olympics.

“My mom told me to follow my heart, so that’s what I did. Most of my memories were as an American, and I wanted to represent the United States,” Keflezighi said.

The rest of the talk focused on the past few years of Keflezighi’s career. He stated that his faith in God has helped him through tough times, whether it has been losing his shoe sponsorship for eight months in 2011 to being injured for long periods.

Turning 41 in several weeks, he plans to retire soon after this summer’s Olympics. He said that he has run 23 career marathons, and plans on running three more competitively before he retires. As he prepares for the Olympics in August, Keflezighi said that he is running 90 miles a week now and will be running 100 to 130 miles a week as his training progresses.

“I will not be ready to run the marathon Monday, but I will be ready to run on August 21,” Keflezighi said.

Featured Image by Lizzy Barrett / Heights Staff