Keeping cool when meeting a hero (just barely)
There are people who are so famous that they are identifiable by one name only. Cher comes to mind. Prince. Bjork. (Maybe this is a just a music phenomenon?)
Mebrahtom Keflezighi is arguably the most inspiring and accomplished marathoner in American running history. His family's escape from Eritrea when he was child ended in San Diego, where as school kids he and his siblings learned English, excelled in school and, in Meb's case, dominated in sports. His high school and college (UCLA) running careers shredded records and blew away the competition.
By the time he retired from professional competition in Fall 2017, he was known widely just as Meb. He'd competed in four Olympics, winning a silver medal in 2004; he won the New York City marathon in 2009; and won the Boston Marathon in 2014, one year after bombs tore apart the finish line and tore at the spirit of people who love the sport.
As a fellow San Diegan, I have low-level stalked Meb for years: eager to know what his next big race would be, how rooted he feels in his home town, how connected he still feels to East Africa. My admiration for him isn't based just on his achievement; it's based on his ability to make a comeback. I remember reading an article in Runner's World that basically counted him out as an aging, injured runner who was the last one to realize his career was over. That was years before he won Boston. His shoe sponsor Nike dropped him at one point, the commercial equivalent of being fired. When Sketcher's picked him up later, it raised eyebrows. Not only did his sponsor drop him, but he was stooping to a sponsorship with a fashion/street shoe company. Fast forward to now, Sketchers has an established performance line designed by Meb and a former Nike designer. What's an runner in his forties doing in an Olympic marathon trial anyway? Coming in second. With negative splits. 2:12:20. That's what. And all the while, he was raising a family, starting a philanthropic foundation, lifting upcoming competitors with his mentorship, and inspiring fans with his integrity.
He is the real deal.
So, when my friends at Vermont City Marathon asked me to help with them a project that connected media, running, San Diego, Vermont and Meb, it was moment when everything I love in life converged. I was somewhere in China when I got a message from Jess with a question: Would I be available to interview Meb for a series of videos to promote Vermont City Marathon? Meb will be in Vermont for the marathon, and they needed to get the word out. I'm sure that exuberant swearing was involved as I clutched my phone rereading the message. Um, yes. Yes, definitely!
Earlier this month, Meb, a video crew and I spent an afternoon in Balboa Park in San Diego. The conversation was a tour of his life's incredible twists and turns. Meb has pounded thousands of miles running on the trails around this park. Just down the road from there is San Diego High School, where he developed from a natural talent to a disciplined competitor. At one point in our interview, the videographer noticed two young runners go by in the background and then contort themselves as they did a double-take. That's Meb!! A few minutes later, they ran through again with a pack of friends, many of them wearing SDHS singlets, eliciting a shout of recognition from Meb. "That's my team!" he smiled and described exactly what route he imagined they'd be running.
My work has put me in the position to meet and interview somewhat famous people, most of them politicians. I've rarely felt star-struck or moved by the experience. But this was different. This was Meb.
My own running while I was in San Diego was less noteworthy than winning major world marathons, but still pretty fun! I looked up the local November Project chapter and joined their early morning, twice-weekly workouts in Balboa Park and Pacific Beach.
Here's what I love about November Project: you get a large group of really friendly, high energy people together and they push each other with unbridled enthusiasm and support to the best workout possible, regardless of your ability. Here, I met people who were working out for the first time, alongside people who were professional athletes. (Seriously. I unwittingly met Todd Clever, recently retired from the US national rugby team. I texted Liz, who follows international rugby and would know better than I, "Have you heard of Todd Clever?" Her answer, "Um, yeah. He's only the most famous American rugby player ever.")
Big thank you to San Diego November Project! 6:29 a.m. comes early, but I never regretted the festive hours I spent with y'all.