Teresa Crain’s daughter, Caroline, had one question for U.S. Olympic marathon team member and 2009 New York City Marathon winner Meb Keflezighi Monday night at Aloft Hotel in Homewood.
“What was your time?” Caroline asked.
Young Caroline knows the vocabulary of runners. Her mother Teresa completed a couch-to-5k program a little more than a year ago. In October, Teresa finished her first marathon, the Marine Corps Marathon in Arlington,Va. Caroline–in running shoes–is following in her mother’s footsteps.
Both mother and daughter brought bibs from recent races for Keflezighi to autograph during a book-signing event held by the Birmingham Track Club. While Teresa’s bib came from her recent marathon, Caroline’s bib from the Retro Run showed she placed 4th overall in her age division (her best time so far).
For the next two hours, local runners and fans lined up for a chance to meet Keflezighi, to get a photograph with him, and to have him sign a copy of his book, Run to Overcome: The Inspiring Story of an American Champion’s Long Distance Quest to Achieve a Big Dream.
“I sign ‘Run to win,’” Keflezighi says during a brief break from signing. He is quick to point out that winning is about each person achieving his or her personal best and setting new, bigger goals for the next time.
“It doesn’t matter how old you are or how fast you are, we all started with one mile,” Keflezighi said.
Keflezighi’s personal journey started in a village without electricity in the midst of poverty and war in Eritrea.* When he was 12 years old, he and his family came to America for citizenship and a better life. Keflezighi didn’t speak English. He also didn’t yet speak the vocabulary of running. He had never raced a mile.
That soon changed. He ran cross-country in grade school. By high school, Keflezighi was a state and national champion. In 2004, he became an Olympic silver medalist. And, in 2009, Keflezighi became the first American to win the New York City Marathon in 27 years. This past summer in London, Keflezighi came in fourth in the Olympic marathon.
“Birmingham is really where his Olympic marathon experience began,” says David Kahn, owner of Yogurt Mountain and a good friend of Keflezighi’s since the two met at a half-marathon in Las Vegas in December 2010. Kahn worked as Keflezighi’s personal assistant during the 2012 Olympics in London.
“We really hit it off when we first met,” Kahn says. “He was with his brother, Merhawi, who is also his agent. I loved their life story and what they had to say. They were impressed with me as a businessman. They’d seen an article about Yogurt Mountain in Fortune. We had a mutual admiration. And if we were from Birmingham, Meb said we were friends.”
Keflezighi has such fond feelings for the area because this is where he qualified for his first Olympics in 2004. Kahn and Keflezighi stayed in touch after that half-marathon in 2010, and they got together again when both ran the New York City Marathon.
“We ran together. He beat me by four hours,” Kahn says, laughing.
Like many of the people lined up to meet Keflezighi Monday night, Kahn has a number of races under his belt. He’s run 29 half-marathons and four full marathons since he completed local running expert Danny Haralson’s Running 101 program four years ago.
In April, Kahn ran the Boston Marathon. Keflezighi was there to cheer him on. During a previous visit to Boston, he had pointed out a Citgo sign to Kahn. “From there, it’s one mile to the finish,” he’d said. “If I’m in Boston, I’ll meet you at the sign, and I’ll run you to the finish.”
Before the race, Keflezighi expressed support and concern. Boston was unseasonably hot that day and he told Kahn to be careful and take his time. When asked what kept him going that day, through the heat and the pain, Kahn says, “The greatest marathoner in America was waiting to run the last mile with me.”
“It is a running family,” Keflezighi says of the sense of community he experiences wherever he goes.
While in Birmingham over the weekend, Keflezighi ran with two different running groups. He visited Mountain Brook High School and spoke with the cross-country team. He is devoted to giving back to the community that gives him so much support. He founded the MEB Foundation, a non-profit devoted to providing health and fitness education and opportunities to children and to engage entire communities in the effort to live active, healthy lives.
At his home Sunday night, Kahn hosted an event to benefit the MEB Foundation. In a show of mutual support, a portion of the proceeds from Monday night’s book signing went to the Birmingham Track Club.
Jennifer Andress, president of the Birmingham Track Club, also speaks of giving back. She says having Keflezighi in town was a great treat for members. It’s also a part of the BTC’s effort to re-engage existing members and bring in new members. The BTC has about 1,000 members and would like to surpass that number in the new year.
Andress, who brought a copy of Runner’s World with Keflezighi on the cover for the elite marathoner to sign, is set to run her fifth marathon this weekend in Memphis. She confesses to a little nervousness.
“I always get nervous. Marathons, you can’t fake it,” Andress says.
Perhaps it is the absolute authenticity of Keflezighi’s accomplishments or maybe it’s his genuine love for his running “family” that keeps fans lined up. As fans take their turn to speak with the athlete, do they ask a common question?
“It’s not even a question as much as a congratulations. They say, ‘You are our hero. You represent our country well. You make us so proud.’”
Keflezighi is wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with the words U.S.A. Olympic Team. He gestures toward his chest. “I am so proud to be an American.”
For more information about Meb Keflezighi or the MEB Foundation, visit marathonmeb.com.
*Correction: Keflezighi was born in what is now known as Eritrea, not Ethiopia, as was originally stated. It was Eritrea’s brutal war of independence from Ethiopian rule that created the violent circumstances of the Keflezighi family’s emigration.