Monday, April 21, 2014

The Best Man

I wrote last week that distance running is more about participation than spectating.  There are many reasons for that.  For one, whoever the favorite is coming into a marathon usually wins.  Many times the winner breaks away with 20-30 minutes left in the race.  There's also the fact that there are very few distance runners who are on top long enough to be well known.  Even though it's my sport I sometimes find myself not knowing many of the top runners.

Coming into today it felt like it would be even more about the masses.  As it should have been, the focus was on the bombings from last year.  They allowed an extra 9,000 people into the race this year - many of whom were not able to finish last year.  I had many friends who, although not in their best shape, decided to race anyways because of the importance of this year.

The last American to win Boston was Greg Meyer in 1983.  Greg is from my home state of Michigan.  I actually got to know him a little bit when he was working with my mom - raising money for the University of Michigan.  He even gave me an old couch of his when I moved into a new apartment.  And he gave me an "interview" for this blog when I was training for Boston five years ago.

As most people know - Kenya and Ethiopia have come to dominate distance running in the last 30 years.  Of the last 23 years Kenyans have won 20 Boston Marathons.  It's been a sore subject for many American runners and coaches.  Americans used to be among the best runners.  With his gold medal in 1972, Frank Shorter ushered in the American running boom.  New York didn't even have a marathon until the mid-70's.

The fact that running was becoming more popular with the masses in the late 70's and early 80's seemed to make it even more difficult for the people in charge of the sport to handle that Americans couldn't win our greatest races.  There has been talk about only giving prize money to Americans - a pretty anti-American idea in my opinion.  In the last 10 years that has turned around somewhat.  Ryan Hall, Dathan Ritzenhein, Galen Rupp, Jenny Simpson etc have all had success on the world stage.

The American who really led this charge was Meb Keflezighi.  Meb outperformed expectations to get a Silver medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics in the marathon.  It was the first marathon medal for the US since Frank Shorter.  More impressive than his running career has been his story.  He and his family immigrated to the US when he was 12 years old from Eritrea.  His family story is truly the American dream.  Many of his eight siblings are doctors, lawyers, and professors.  His parents pushed their children to make the most of the opportunities they had in the US.

Meb has always been one of my favorite runners.  He is confident and yet humble.  He has overcome many injuries and setbacks.  His sponsor Nike dropped him several years ago when it looked like his career was close to being over.  No other major shoe company would pick him up - he ended up being signed for Skechers.  The entire running community felt pity for the once great runner.  How could Meb be sponsored by a shoe company that seemed to belong more on the feet of a shuffle board player than a marathoner?

But he didn't give up.  He redoubled his efforts training and won New York in 2009.  He somehow came out with a 4th place finish at the London Olympics.  There was one thing about Meb - he performs on the big stage.  More importantly - he has passion for what he does.  He hasn't let the ups and downs of a long professional career jade him.  Watch an interview from last November after the New York marathon.

A few months before New York Meb found out he had a partially torn soleus muscle.  He cross trained to maintain his aerobic fitness - but his legs weren't strong enough on race day.  Most pro's who have a bad day in the marathon simply walk off the course and wait for the sag wagon to take them back to the finish.  Why put more stress on your body than you need to when it's not your day?  But Meb doesn't think that way. 

Usually the best runner wins a marathon.  Today the best man won.

AP photo of Meb after the American national anthem played for the Boston marathon champ for the first time in 31 years.

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