FALMOUTH — The call came while Boston Marathon champion Meb Keflezighi was crisscrossing the country, giving speeches, lending his presence to road races big and small, running in a few, and at others simply standing at the finish line to shake hands with everyday runners.
Keflezighi and his wife, Yordanos Asgedom, received an invitation to a state dinner at the White House following the US-Africa Leaders Summit Aug. 5. That’s when the scrambling began. As his travels continued, Keflezighi bought a suit in Columbus, his wife a dress in Chicago, and his brother came from Maine, where the family had been for the Beach to Beacon 10K, to take charge of the three little Keflezighi girls, shepherding them home to San Diego.
“President Obama called to congratulate me after I won Boston,’’ said Keflezighi, who is here for Sunday’s Falmouth Road Race. “And at the end he said, ‘I’ll be in touch.’ It was beyond my dreams.”
At the dinner, Keflezighi said he was nervous when the guests were ushered into the White House receiving room, until President Obama looked up and recognized him and announced, “Here comes the fast guy.”
The Keflezighis were seated at a table with the president and first lady, as well as former president Jimmy Carter, with whom Keflezighi shared a conversation about their cross-country running experiences. Keflezighi said the Obamas were personable and down to earth, and he could not help thinking about the distance he had traveled to reach that dinner table at the White House.
Keflezighi’s family left behind a war in Eritrea to emigrate to the United States in 1987, arriving in San Diego with nothing. Meb became an American citizen in 1998, was a collegiate star at UCLA, and has had a 20-year career in running that also includes an Olympic silver medal and a victory in the New York City Marathon.
“It was pretty incredible,’’ Keflezighi said. “I’ve been to the White House before as an Olympian, for a handshake, and then you go bow, and I got to meet President Obama and President Clinton . . . but to have a dinner though, I mean that’s amazing, for somebody with my background where I came from. You say it’s the land of opportunity, that I can make it there to be somebody, even though there was a language barrier, a cultural barrier, a financial barrier, so many obstacles.
“We had to pinch ourselves, is this actually happening?”
At one point during the dinner, Carter told Keflezighi that he was the most popular guy in the room.
“For a president to say that,’’ Keflezighi said, “it tickles your heart a little bit, just because of how big the victory in the Boston Marathon was.’’
Inspiration to others
Since the moment he broke the tape at the Boston finish line, arms stretched wide and beaming an expression of joy and defiance, Keflezighi has been ambassador, spokesman, hero, and role model for the city, for the United States, and for runners everywhere. The first American man to win Boston in 31 years, Keflezighi brought unexpected happiness to Boylston Street, scene of such horror in 2013 when bombings killed three and injured more than 260. The depth of the tragedy meant the 2014 Marathon was burdened with importance, which Keflezighi shouldered when he spent every day of the year thinking about what he could do to bring home an American victory.
It took 2 hours 8 minutes 37 seconds to run the race (a personal best for the 39-year-old); it has taken considerably longer to sift through his emotions about the accomplishment.
Everywhere he goes people approach, not to congratulate him but to say thank you.
They tell him stories of where they were when he won the race. “One man was going in to have surgery but there were 10 minutes left in the race,’’ Keflezighi said, “and he told them to wait.”
One of the directors of the board of the Falmouth race said he was inspired to return to running after a 15-year hiatus after watching Keflezighi win Boston.
“People, men and women, told me they were watching in their living room and crying,’’ said Keflezighi.
Keflezighi set three goals when he came to Boston: to win, to reach the podium, to run a personal best.
“But on race day, I changed everything,” he said. “I said ‘You know what, I’m going to inspire people. I’m going to run my heart out and if somebody beats me, I’m OK with it.’ ”
No one could beat him.
Keflezighi will tackle Falmouth’s 7-mile seaside summer tradition for the fourth time. He finished second in 2007 and 2008, and fifth in 2009, the top American each time.
Keflezighi’s peripatetic schedule has run roughshod over his training routine, a prescribed series of workouts, 12 a week, that he now will return to in earnest in preparation for the New York City Marathon in November. Sunday he will be the official starter for Falmouth, then jump in and run with the pack.
“It’ll be fun to run with the people,’’ said Keflezighi, who this summer has joined races from Atlanta to Green Bay and from Iowa to Maine, determined to spread the strength and spirit of his Boston victory to as many corners of the running world as he can.
At the Peachtree 10K in Atlanta, he started at the back of the field of 60,000, and passed as many runners as he could as a fund-raiser for the Atlanta club’s youth program (he got by 22,780). He paced a corral of runners in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Half-Marathon (the hour-and-a-halfers) in his hometown of San Diego.
He shakes every hand that is extended and smiles for every picture.
“It’s been wonderful,’’ Keflezighi said of his victory tour. “I enjoyed it and hopefully I touched peoples’ lives who are able to say, ‘I was part of an experience with Meb,’ whether it was running or at an expo.’’
A career that might have been fading is instead rejuvenated.
Now New York is on his schedule.
And he has eyes on the trials for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, when he will be 41.
He said that after winning Boston, his career is 100 percent fulfilled — “If I didn’t run another step, I’m OK with it.” — but his time at Boston, after all, was a personal best. He’s faster than ever, so he’s still running.